Danville Express

Cover Story - July 27, 2007

No place to call home

Even in Danville, homeless people are eking out an existence

by Natalie O'Neill

On an industrial suburban street, a room full of homeless people have gathered in a drab cafeteria. One by one, they are called to the front of the room, where they address a judge in a sleek black robe. The judge is sitting at an elementary school-style lunchroom table, in front of a stack of papers, wearing a business-as-usual facial expression.

It's called "homeless court" and no: It isn't an idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch. Its purpose is to help those who are down and out clear up past criminal infractions - citations that are keeping them from transitioning back into society. And yes: There are former Danville residents in attendance.

At these gatherings, charges that result from living on the street - like camping in public, loitering and sleeping in cars - can be wiped clean with volunteer hours. They are deliberately held in casual settings to create a less intimidating bureaucratic atmosphere for those who have been out of the system.

Homeless court is just part of the county-wide plan to end homelessness in 10 years, a program that began in 2004.

But even with a formal movement in the county, the number of transients found living in encampments, out in the wild and in their cars, has increased from 1,463 to 1,749 in the past two years, according to the most recent homeless count. The count was taken by county health services as a "snapshot" of a single day.

Homelessness isn't just an urban problem. In Contra Costa County, about 4,150 homeless people were found during the 2007 homeless count - despite the county's plan to give "housing first" opportunities, drug and alcohol treatment, and job training to the suburban transient population.

"The face of homelessness is different here - it's more spread out and not as easily seen," says Lavonna Martin, assistant director of the county Homeless Program.

While Danville may be known more for mansions and Mercedes than for its desperate and derelict, encampments still speckle the town's open spaces.

Danville folks are in and out of shelters like anyone else, Martin says. It's alive here, too.

Just look next to creeks, behind fences, up in the hills and under the overpasses. Take one improvised trail behind a popular Danville shopping center (the name has been withheld for the consideration of its inhabitants). Behind the center's businesses, where an overgrown fence separates the lot from the freeway, a stretch of sleeping bags, a couch, empty bottles of liquor, strewn trash and even a stereo is evidence of transient life in Danville.

Climb through a hole in the chain-link fence and an obvious homeless strip is visible.

Fred Rhian, who used to do recycling for a Danville grocery store and has been in and out of shelters for the last five years, says the private, shady region was notorious for encampments in Danville as far back as 1999.

Rhian is now staying in the Concord shelter with his belongings crammed into two suitcases. Every 120 days, he must transfer out of the shelter to make room for others. And right now, he's doing his best to find a job with his limited skills and education.

"I can't stand it. Every time I come back here (to the shelter), I've got my tail between my legs," he says with a Boston accent.

Unlike many of his fellow shelter mates, Rhian, 54, has no mental illness. He has never been to jail and doesn't have an affinity to drugs and alcohol. He prefers playing chess to drugs any day, and grew up in a religious family in Massachusetts.

"I've never even smoked a cigarette," he says. "Thank goodness I don't have those problems, I don't know what I'd do."

Here in the East Bay, the cost of living is a huge factor. In Contra Costa County, where fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $1,230 per month, the "housing wage" is about $25.50 per hour - 3.4 times California's $7.50 minimum wage.

Housing wage is a term used nationally for the amount a person working full-time must earn to afford fair-market rent, without spending more than 30 percent of his or her income on rent. Some middle class individuals earning $50,000 a year in Contra Costa County don't make housing wage. And many of these individuals are educated, skilled college graduates.

For those without resources - social or family networks - this county is one of the most difficult places in the nation to stay afloat.

Danville Mayor Mike Shimansky, who serves on the County Homeless Advisory Board, says it's one of the area's most pervasive social issues.

"You can't say there are no homeless people in Danville. We've got some, just like every city. We've got to tackle this as a countywide problem," he says.

According to the homeless count 2007, three homeless people were found in Danville. Three were also found in Alamo, and 93 were found in Walnut Creek. To take the count, staff is tipped off on the locations of encampments by people who previously have been homeless.

In the Danville-Alamo area, most homeless people spotted are passing through and would usually rather be part of the backdrop than stir up trouble, Danville and Alamo police officers say.

Deputy Elmer Glasser of the Alamo Sheriff's Valley Station says he comes in contact with homeless people in the area, sometimes walking down Danville Boulevard.

"They are usually off their meds," Glasser says. "Most of the time they just want to be left alone."

Alamo Police Advisory Committee member Bill Nelson, who reported seeing transients pushing shopping carts and hanging around churches in Alamo, says the majority of them use the area as a pit stop while they pass through.

"Iron Horse Trail provides them a path up and down the county," he explained.

Homeless people are broken into three types, according to the county: the transitional, the chronic and the discharged. The transitional usually have recently lost their jobs or been evicted, while the chronic tend to be disabled, suffer from mental and physical illness or drug addiction. Discharged homeless have been released directly from public intuitions like jail, mental health facilities or drug rehab treatment on to the street.

Officers look at if the person is a threat to themselves and others before deciding whether or not to take them to a detention facility or a shelter, Glasser said. When police receive a complaint from neighbors or people who have spotted them, they will generally try to help them get set up in a shelter.

Problem is, most of the shelters are full to the brim.

Roberto Reyes, director of Contra Costa Homeless Program, says shelters do all they can to bring people in who have been "living out there in the wild." But there aren't always available beds.

"We try to find a bed for them, sometimes there are only five available... A lot of times they haven't showered, they've got blisters. They're hungry, they're tired," he says.

From the time they check into the shelter, they can begin getting health care. The idea is to get mentally ill patients back on medication and drug addicts into group counseling.

Last week, county workers cleared several large encampments in Concord, dislocating the city's homeless and putting even more pressure on East Bay shelters. The cleanup was prompted by a fire that burned an acre of land near Buchanan Field. Tenants complained, a cleanup was organized, and many transients lost all of their belongings - sleeping bags, books and changes of clothes.

Even after finding a home base at East Bay shelters, finding and maintaining a job is a constant fight, Rhian says. In his case, a combination of little job training, bad luck and low self-esteem seem to be keeping him from getting back on his feet.

"I'm stuck," he says. "I pray a lot and I go to church. What else can I do?"

Picking up and moving from shelter to shelter every four months and having no space of his own makes the job hunt even more difficult, he says.

After all, how is someone supposed to make a good impression at an interview when they don't have a steady place to clean themselves up, sleep, and feel grounded? And what do you put on your resume when you've got no permanent address?

That's where the county's housing-first approach comes in. At the center of the plan to end homelessness by 2014, is affordable housing. Advocates of the housing-first approach say despite the vast reasons for homelessness in the county, all transients can benefit from having a solid base. From there they will be better able to address the problems - either temporary or chronic - that hold them back from society.

It's a long process, but county homeless service providers are hopeful.

"It's getting better - I think the solution is more clear than ever," Martin says.

To untangle themselves from a web of debt, criminal records and addiction, the county's homeless must be given a second chance, Martin says. Many times this has to happen through the justice system before housing is even an option.

For much of Contra Costa's homeless population, the path to a stable home requires a clean slate - a fresh start that can begin in front of a judge in a drab cafeteria-courtroom.

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