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As the Kern County Homeless Collaborative gears up to conduct a point-in-time count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people on Jan. 23-24, it's worth taking a look back to see what may have altered the local homeless landscape since the last census effort.
To put things in perspective, the Jan. 26-27, 2011, census produced a count of 1,439 homeless throughout Kern during that snapshot, dusk-to-dusk 24-hour period.
That reflected a 4 percent decrease in the overall number of homeless in the community from the 1,499 counted in 2009 -- which is impressive in light of the tough economic climate of the last few years.
But it is easy to understand that reduction in homelessness when considering that several million dollars in Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing federal stimulus funds came into our community beginning in late 2009. That funding dried up in mid-2012, but while it was available it helped reduce family homelessness in Kern by 12 percent.
Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing also yielded a successful model of multimonth housing and supportive service assistance to homeless and at-risk families that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a major funder of the Homeless Collaborative, is now implementing on a more permanent basis. HUD, by the way, is the government agency that requires a count of the homeless from every community receiving its assistance for homelessness-fighting programs. It, in turn, reports nationwide homeless census results to Congress.
Two pieces of California legislation introduced since the 2011 homeless census may have an important effect on the 2013 count.
In October 2011, Assembly Bill 109, the California Safety Realignment Act, approved the release of thousands of nonviolent, nondangerous, nonsexual offenders back to the community under county supervision in an effort to reduce state prison overcrowding. Because ex-offenders who have just been released from jail or prison are at high risk for homelessness, the leadership of the Homeless Collaborative advocated before the Community Corrections Partnership (made up of local law enforcement, legislators, county mental and medical health care providers and others) to ensure that a proper discharge plan is in place for these inmates to prevent them from ending up homeless upon release.
Those advocacy efforts made possible the allocation of close to $1 million in grants from the Community Corrections Partnership to community-based organizations that provide sober living, job training, community reintegration assistance and other services to ex-offenders, to prevent homelessness and recidivism among them.
In January 2012, Assembly Bill 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, extended foster care to age 21. This three-year extension of the adult emancipation age from 18 could help reduce homelessness among foster youth who are at high risk because of weak family and other support networks.
The Homeless Collaborative has grown dramatically over the last two years, currently boasting 26 member agencies, businesses and individuals -- a 37 percent increase over the 19 members at the time of the 2011 homeless census.
In 2012, Homeless Collaborative members implemented new programs to help the homeless, including Project Homeless Connect, an annual one-day resource fair to quickly link homeless persons to services; Home First 12, designed to house the most medically vulnerable street homeless; SOAR (SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery), which helps eligible homeless access Social Security benefits faster, thus empowering them to live independently on cash aid-based income; and several housing, job training and supportive service programs for homeless veterans and their families.
The 2013 point-in-time count should reveal the impact of all these new developments on the local homeless numbers.
The Homeless Collaborative is currently in need of about 20 volunteers to assist in the upcoming homeless count. If interested, please visit www.kernhomeless.org, click on the "Volunteer" button and fill out and submit the application form. You will be contacted so you can attend a mandatory three-hour training. Only people 18 and older may apply to volunteer.
For more information, please email Louis.M@uwkern.org, or call 834-2734.
Louis Medina works for United Way of Kern County as the Kern County Homeless Collaborative's homelessness project manager. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words.