Officials trying to save program that keeps people in homes and off streets

KAREN QUINCY LOBERG/THE STAR Jody Freeman and her son James Freeman, 6, spend part of their evening with a Sponge Bob spelling book at home in Somis before his bedtime. When James Freeman was a baby, they lived for two years at the Salvation Army after Freeman lost her job as an escrow manager.
As the annual count of the homeless population in Ventura County gets under way today, officials are trying to save a program they say has prevented many more people from landing on the streets.
The Homeless Prevention & Rapid Re-Housing Program has aided a little over 1,700 Ventura County residents since its launch in late 2009, but the federal stimulus dollars that paid for it are about to run out.
The program provided $1.2 million in assistance payments for rent, move-in deposits, utilities and moving costs. Applicants must be homeless or on the verge and able to pay for their housing after what's intended as a one-time bailout.
Jody Freeman, 45, said the $2,100 in aid allowed her to stay in her two-bedroom apartment in Ventura and out of a shelter. The retail clerk was facing eviction after she was hurt on the job a couple years ago and her boyfriend had only a seasonal job.
"We would have been homeless," said the single parent who has twice lived in a Salvation Army shelter with her son James, 6.
"It was absolutely a critical time in my life," said Freeman, who now lives in subsidized housing in Somis. At least a few county nonprofit organizations have offered similar programs for years. But the federal program was unusual both for how much money it delivered and the fact that it offered one place where needy people could go for help, officials said.
Income-eligible households received financial assistance to help them get or stay in housing along with budgeting advice to maintain it. More than 80 percent were still there at the end of a six-month tracking of their progress, said Karol Schulkin, program coordinator for homeless services.
Social workers helped people living on the brink cut costs and set up small savings accounts. Some moved to cheaper apartments than they preferred, gave up cars, cable television and phones.
Recipients had to be homeless or facing eviction within 30 days, make no more than half of the area median income, which is $40,200 for a family of three; and be a U.S. citizen or qualified legal resident.
Cathy Brudnicki, executive director of the Ventura County Homeless & Housing Coalition, said housing officials are brainstorming how to keep the program going even if they can't commit as much money.
One option: directing a significant chunk of federal funds the county receives for emergency housing and community services to the cause.
"There are different funding sources," Brudnicki said. "We need to look at using them smarter, and that's the conversation we're having now."
Mike Powers, county executive officer, said he hopes to present options for continuing the program to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors within a few weeks. "It's been more effective than anybody imagined," he said.
Both locally and nationally, experts say the program has minimized homelessness amid slow economic times.
Earlier this month, the National Alliance to End Homelessness issued a report showing that the number of homeless people had declined by 1 percent between 2009 and 2011.
"What's remarkable here is that despite the recession and its aftermath, homelessness did not increase," said Nan Roman, president of the alliance.
The number of homeless people fell by 15 percent in Ventura County over the same time period, reports show. The figure declined from 2,193 in 2009 to 1,815 in 2010, then ticked up to 1,872 last year, according to the annual street count.
The figures reflect homeless people living outdoors as well as those served by shelters and other nonprofit agencies. Not counted were people sleeping on friends' couches or in crowded housing conditions.
This year's count is scheduled to get under way as early as 5 a.m. today as hundreds of volunteers fan out across the county. Results are due in March or April.
Jody Freeman, who is now a college student and aspiring social worker, is thankful she and her son won't be in the tally.
But she can certainly remember how it felt to be facing that prospect.
"I was scared, I was worried," she said. "I had a child I couldn't provide shelter for. ... Nobody feels good about themselves, especially if you have children with you."
Please subscribe to this blog J