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Providing a long-term solution instead of a short-term fix

Homelessness panel discussion suggests directing needy to service centers instead of providing immediate resources

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Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
At a panel discussion about homelessness and behavioral health on Friday, June 29 at the Expo Arts Center, Elsa Ramos (right), coordinator of the City of Long Beach Multi-Service Center, said there are roughly 1,800 people in Long Beach who are “self-reporting” themselves as homeless, according to the City’s recent homeless count. A majority of those individuals are living on the streets, including in vehicles, parks and isolated areas of the city, according to Ramos.

It may be tempting to provide an immediate dollar or resource to panhandlers asking for support, but local experts in homelessness and behavioral health told the community Friday, June 29 at the Expo Arts Center that the best approach is to direct those in need to one of Long Beach’s many service centers.

Last Friday’s community workshop and panel discussion, hosted by 8th District Councilmember Al Austin, informed attendees about potential strategies they can apply when attempting to help local homeless people. The group also discussed the opening of a new urgent-care center in the beginning of August and the convening of a new homeless task force.

“I’ll just ask that the public be as patient as possible on the implementation of [reducing homelessness],” Austin said. “You don’t plug in and make government work overnight or fix an issue like homelessness overnight. But, the resources have been identified, and I know that this windfall will be used wisely, and we have a great strategy and plan in place for the city.”

The panelists during the event were: Patricia Sanchez, program director and head of service for nonprofit For the Child; Chris Zamora, Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) detective; Heather Ames, program director for Star View Behavioral Care Urgent Center; and Elsa Ramos, coordinator of the City of Long Beach Multi-Service Center.

Ramos said the City of Long Beach Multi-Service Center, 1301 W. 12th St., which co-locates 11 agencies to provide services to homeless individuals throughout the city, has been in operation since 1999. She said there has been a slight but steady decline of the homeless population in the Long Beach area in recent years. Based off the City’s recent homeless count, Ramos said there are roughly 1,800 individuals in Long Beach who are “self-reporting” themselves as homeless. From that population number, 1,200 of those individuals are living on the streets– including in vehicles, parks and known congregate areas.

Despite the numbers suggesting a decrease in homeless individuals, there are some residents who consistently see panhandlers on specific street corners or shopping centers. One woman at the event said she always sees the same parents, with their children, at her local Vons grocery store.

“Assisting with funds to someone who is panhandling– there’s two different ways to look at it,” said Zamora, with the LBPD. “On the one hand, you have an individual who just needs something, and they are hungry. I don’t think there’s anybody in this room who would say ‘no’ to somebody who is hungry. That’s a hard one. […] But, the direction to take as a city and a community is to directly support the multi-service center, because, for me, I’ve learned how these programs work best for a citywide approach. Although that individual will be fed right there, and that’s good, that does feel good, but investing money into the center has a long-term effect.”

A direct factor in asking for money is substance abuse. Zamora said providing money to the wrong person could simply enable to them to pursue their addictions, adding how he has seen “the most needles” in the streets in recent years than he’s ever witnessed in his career.

Alcohol is something that also comes in cheap and efficient quanties, such as a tall liquor can or a small vodka bottle, the former typically priced at about $1.25 or so.

“There are large corporations that are really abusing this situation for that individual, and that’s rarely talked about,” he said. “[…] You have to keep that in mind.”

Moreover, not everybody who is panhandling is experiencing homelessness, Ramos said. Some people who ask for money or food are families who are trying to make ends meet.

From left: Patricia Sanchez, program director and head of service for nonprofit For the Child; Chris Zamora, Long Beach Police Department detective; and Heather Ames, program director for Star View Behavioral Care Urgent Center

“We’re in the business of providing people a hand up not a handout,” she said. “Most people who are provided a dollar or sandwich are getting an immediate need met. That’s why people congregate in certain areas– they are getting a certain need met on an ongoing basis. They don’t have to go anywhere to get a meal, they don’t have to go anywhere to get financial assistance, because someone else is providing them those needs. That doesn’t really help someone get out of homelessness. It just continues them to enable their current situation. […] Instead of handing out a dollar or sandwich, we ask that you hand out maybe a pocket guide. It has information on resources that are available to help someone get out of that situation into a more stable setting.”

Ramos said residents can also donate through Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s homeless fund on the City’s website, which can be found at longbeach.gov/health/services/directory/mayors-fund.

The multi-service center is able to provide the homeless population a continuum of care, Ramos added. The aforementioned pocket guide, which has a resource directory of local social services such as the Long Beach Rescue Mission and American Red Cross, was available at the event and is also currently available at the multi-service center.

“The continuum is essentially a system of services, resources and housing that exist to help individuals and families minimize their life of homelessness and provide them the support they need to quickly be re-housed and provide support of in-housing so that they don’t fall out of housing again in the future,” she said.

The multi-service center is funded on both a state and federal level, both of which allow the organization to allocate its finances to programs and address specific needs. Ramos said voters also recently approved Measure H, a tax-supporter-cent tax that came into effect last October that grants the center access to prevention dollars.

“Historically, we have not had prevention dollars because it’s not something the federal government funds,” she said. “So, to be able to use the funds through the county, now we’re going to be able to have funds to help people keep their housing due to unforeseen circumstances, tragedies or loss of jobs. They will be able to bounce back because we can provide that gap assistance so people don’t have to experience homelessness.”

This year, the City introduced the Everyone Home Long Beach initiative, a 28-member task force consisting of leaders from local hospitals, Cal State Long Beach, Long Beach City College, Long Beach Unified School District and other entities to enhance the effort being made to reduce homelessness.

Ames also provided information about Star View Behavioral Care Urgent Center, a facility recently approved by the Long Beach City Council that will open in early August. The urgent-care space, 3210 Long Beach Blvd., will have 24-hour programs and a crisis walk-in center for mentally-ill patients.

“This is where they can get specialized treatment and assessment, meet with a psychiatrist, meet with a therapist, get medication, whatever they need,” Ames said. “We can provide that immediate service for them. Mental illness is so rampant with our homeless population, so we will be able to serve that need when they are in an immediate crisis and get them stabilized.”

Sanchez said the nonprofit For the Child, 4565 California Ave., partners with local agencies, such as the Children’s Clinic, to ensure minors have access to basic services.

“Part of the homeless population that gets forgotten are homeless children,” she said. “[…] We don’t often see children, but there are children there. Those children can be linked to certain services. There are great organizations, such as the Children Today or Precious Lamb, that direct homeless children to child-development centers to give them the food that they need. They have trained staff to care for the child.”

For more information, visit forthechild.org, starsinc.com/bhucc-longbeach and longbeach.gov/health/services/directory/homeless-services/need-assistance. Visit the City of Long Beach Multi-Service Center, 1301 W. 12th St., for access to its resource pocket guide.

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Providing a long-term solution instead of a short-term fix