Sometimes all you need is a microwave.
As homeless service providers in Bakersfield, California worked their way through the list of people with chronic homelessness in the area and tried to find housing units for each one, the groups faced a variety of challenges, says Anna Laven, executive director of Bakersfield Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative. The groups met regularly after joining the Built for Zero campaign in 2015 to end homelessness. The cornerstone of the “Built for Zero” approach is a list of names of all individuals who are affected by homelessness in different categories – chronically homeless, veterans, youth, families, and so on. The collaboration worked to find accommodation for each person on the list through case conferences. She met regularly to discuss individual cases and to find out what it would take to get this person into an apartment.
In some cases, the challenge has to do with landlords. For example, one of the people on the area’s list of names had two dogs, and it took extra work to find a landlord who would rent a unit to someone with pets. Another person didn’t want to move into a certain apartment because there was no microwave. So the cooperative bought them one.
“The whole idea of a list of names and case conferences is that you try to put a group that has similar needs that you can get some efficiency out of there,” says Laven. “But in that you still have to treat everyone as an individual.”
Bakersfield, California, seat of Kern County, is a city of approximately 350,000 residents. In 2017, for the first time, the cooperation compiled a list of chronically homeless people by name who have been homeless repeatedly or for more than a year while struggling with a disability such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder or physical disability. Between that time and the beginning of 2020, the number of chronically homeless people was reduced from 72 to 2 and, as defined by Community Solutions, the group coordinating the “Built for Zero” campaign, “functional zero” for chronic homelessness reached. When the pandemic started, the number of chronically homeless people rose again, says Laven. Thanks to an established collaboration between service providers and housing providers in the region and a well-timed investment by the Californian project Homekey, the community was able to reduce the number again. In January 2021, Bakersfield announced that it would become the first California city to end chronic homelessness.
According to the “Built for Zero” campaign, it is one of five cities in which chronic homelessness has been functionally ended. Others are Abilene, Texas and Rockford, Illinois, Next City reported. However, the organizers hope that there will be a lot more soon. In April, Community Solutions announced that the MacArthur Foundation had received a $ 100 million grant to help 75 cities end the homelessness of chronic and veterans. Jake Maguire, principal at Community Solutions and co-director of the Built for Zero campaign, says the organization hopes to work with a diverse enough group of cities to prove that any type of community has homelessness with good data and persistent Can end efforts. Maguire says communities in the “Built for Zero” campaign usually either start with veterans because they are one of the achievable subcategories of homelessness, with dedicated resources and often strong political support, or they start with chronic homelessness, which is often the toughest subcategory is. and hope that finding strategies to reduce these numbers will help them in other subcategories as well.
Bakersfield is the first California city to hit a functional zero for each category, and Maguire says this is a major milestone in a state with an extremely difficult real estate crisis.
“[Bakersfield] isn’t LA, but it’s a decent size city combined with a huge rural county, ”says Maguire. “It’s a big, complex geography in one of the most expensive states in America, with conservative politicians and a lot of things that would make people say, ‘This is not the place to solve homelessness.’ But Bakersfield actually did it. ”
Part of the reason Bakersfield has managed to reduce its chronically homeless population is because the Kern county’s housing department spent time and resources helping. Heather Kimmel led the Built for Zero work at the California Veterans Assistance Foundation before moving to the Housing Authority, where she now works as Assistant General Manager. The housing authority of the district of Kern has been uniquely committed to people who are homeless for years, says Kimmel, but more and more housing authorities are explicitly focusing on the topic.
“The connection between the resources of the housing authority and ending homelessness is becoming clearer,” says Kimmel. “A community cannot effectively tackle homelessness without a strong partnership with housing authorities.”
In Kern County, one housing authority strategy was to get a “master lease” with private landlords who were reluctant to rent directly to the homeless. This enabled the housing authority to sublet residential units to people who were not housed, while assuming liability for any damage incurred and agreeing to evacuate if necessary. It was a small program, says Kimmel, that only consisted of eight units. At the end of the first year, all but one of those accommodated under the program either took over the lease and stayed in the same unit or used their Housing Voucher to move to another unit.
Another reason the master leasing concept works, according to Laven who leads the collaboration, is that many people who have been chronically homeless have experienced a lot of rejection and denial and may refuse to fill out paperwork for anything that could they are denied. With the housing authority as the tenant, the tenants do not have to go through an application process, as would be the case with a normal apartment.
Funding for the master leasing program came from a grant from Kaiser Permanente, says Kimmel, and the agency plans to keep the master leasing option in future grant applications. Not every strategy works every time, says Kimmel, but it is beneficial to have grant funds that are flexible, for example to work with landlords, find documents like birth certificates, and buy bus passes or household appliances.
“When you start tackling the homeless one by one and know who the homeless are by name and personalize them, this overwhelming problem will gradually become solvable,” she says.
Editor’s Note: We have clarified the definition of chronic homelessness.
Jared Brey is the Philadelphia-based housing correspondent for Next City. He is a former contributor to Philadelphia Magazine and PlanPhilly. His work has been featured in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, US News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.