Project 50: watch us grow

October 15, 2009 

Call it “Project 250.”

Spurred by the success of Project 50, the paradigm-busting homeless program targeting Skid Row’s most vulnerable residents, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky earlier this year proposed a countywide expansion he dubbed Project 500. But when the full Board of Supervisors asked the Auditor Controller to further study the program’s benefits before committing, many observers guessed that the expansion was on hold.

Not exactly.

Homeless outreach in Venice  Photo: Liz O. Baylen/LA TIMES

Homeless outreach in Venice Photo: Liz O. Baylen/LA TIMES

Without fanfare, similar county-approved homelessness projects in three Third District communities are already well underway, working to house 130 in Santa Monica, 40 in Venice and 30 more in Van Nuys. Together with the initial 50 clients in downtown L.A., you might say Project 500 is halfway home.

The newer projects follow similar protocols pioneered in downtown Los Angeles by Project 50, an innovative initiative shepherded through the board by Yaroslavsky that is now in its second year.

Outreach workers identify the most at-risk homeless based on a “vulnerability index” created by New York City-based homeless advocates Common Ground. The index assesses such factors as recent hospitalizations, arrests, addiction issues and length of homelessness. Those in gravest danger of death are placed in permanent supportive housing, surrounded with health and mental health services, along with substance abuse treatment, that can revitalize lives and save taxpayer’s money in reduced jail time, hospital stays and emergency room visits.

During its first year, Project 50 reported encouraging results (see Power Point here). Among other things, those results suggested that the chronically homeless are not “service-resistant” and want to move into housing. Eighty-eight percent of the men and women recruited at the beginning of the program remained in housing at the end of the year, despite the fact that they’d averaged nearly 10 full years living on the streets before signing up. Thirty seven of the 39 in the group diagnosed with mental illness were receiving treatment, and 61 percent of the substance abusers had entered counseling.

Preliminary cost data showed substantial savings, too. Hospital and emergency room visits plunged for the group compared to the previous year, as did jail time, saving taxpayers more than $500,000, according to preliminary figures. Project 50 has been allocated $3.6 million in county funding.

The new programs:

Venice: St. Joseph Center of Venice, which identified the community’s most vulnerable homeless individuals during a three-night survey in May, has signed up 28 of the 40 clients it hopes to house in its two-year program, according to Va Lecia Adams, the center’s executive director. One of those is Gigi Davis, 51, a Marine Corps vet who has been sleeping on the streets near the Venice post office and says she is bipolar and has a drinking problem. Now taking psychiatric medications, she says she is grateful “for the improvement in my day to day life that I’m already seeing.”

Santa Monica: Five providers are combining to house 130 of the area’s most vulnerable homeless people, first identified in a survey nearly two years ago. The Ocean Park Community Center is serving 40 individuals, and Step Up on Second is working with 30. The other clients are working with the Clare Foundation, St. Joseph Center and the Veterans Administration. Tod Lipka, Step Up on Second’s CEO, noted that a recent homeless census showed a first-ever drop in this population, boosting confidence that homelessness can be successfully attacked. Such programs, Lipka, says go “a long way to address the problems of homelessness.”

Van Nuys: Following a homeless survey in May in Van Nuys, the San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center will be combining services for 30 clients over the next year. Program director Anita Kaplan says 13 clients have been enrolled and will get Section 8 housing vouchers as they become available. “This fast-track into permanent housing is definitely unique,” says Kaplan. “I do see a lot of successes.”

Read L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez’s take on Project 50.

Posted 10/15/09

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