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Elected leaders and nonprofit service providers in Monterey County recently gathered for a virtual summit on homelessness in what county officials hope will be an annual event to coordinate and check in on progress addressing what has been designated a crisis in the region.

All had one message during the July 14 forum: solving homelessness is going to take all stakeholders working together with sustained, coordinated effort.

The Lead Me Home Summit on Homelessness brought together a range of service providers in housing, homeless services, and health services, as well as elected leaders and staff from the state, county, and city level.

Monterey County’s annual point-in-time count was released for the first time since 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and revealed 2,047 unsheltered individuals residing in the county in 2022. That’s down from 2,422 in 2019, a reduction of 15.05 percent.

Roxanne Wilson, executive officer of the Coalition for Homeless Service Providers, led the meeting, which was presented by Monterey County Supervisors Luis Alejo and Wendy Root Askew. Wilson took on the role of homelessness services director for the county this week.

Wilson detailed the five-year “Lead Me Home plan” that will guide the region in finding more solutions to the housing shortage, with the goal of reducing homelessness by 50 percent during that period. It was passed in 2021 and adopted by several jurisdictions and more are being urged to join the effort.

“We wanted an action-oriented plan that was informed by local data, that it was housing focused, and that it also lifted up the voices of people with lived experience,” Wilson said.

‘They are our neighbors’

Staci Alziebler-Perkins, executive director of the nonprofit Gathering for Women, said that despite the overall reduction in point-in-time count, she was seeing an increase in homeless women in the county.

“It’s very concerning to me,” she said. “I’m not sure if the point-in-time count captured that.” Alziebler-Perkins said that 66 percent of the guests that utilize the organization’s services are longtime residents of the county, something that Wilson noted as well in her presentation.

“People say, ‘the people aren’t from here.’ Well, guess what, yes they are. They are our neighbors,” said Wilson.

(Video courtesy of Monterey County/YouTube)

The Youth Action Board, a committee of the Leadership Council of Monterey and San Benito Counties’ Continuum of Care that hosted the summit, announced that $5.8 million in funding and a focused, 100-day challenge to reduce youth homelessness by 100 people had helped drive down the number of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness from 324 in 2019 to 233 in this year’s count.

Board member Kai Reynolds said the ultimate solution is housing.

“Currently we are not equipped to house these youths,” Reynolds said.

The need for housing and coordinated regional effort were the most recurring themes of the summit, with unsustainable rents and living wages discussed, as well as the stock of affordable housing available and landlords who would accept vouchers.

Wilson said there are currently 16 units of affordable housing available in the county for every 100 residents who fit the criteria of having very low income, “and many of them are seniors.”

King City Mayor Mike LeBarre and Salinas housing analyst Rod Powell also spoke about the need for regional participation and coordination. Powell said Project Homekey, an effort by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fund conversions of motels, has been a success for Salinas, with three properties converted with the first round of funding. Another $150 million is expected to be available in the coming months for more conversions.

Conversions keep costs down

Tod Lipka, president and CEO of the nonprofit Step Up, said Project Homekey was a great alternative to building new housing. He said it costs an average of $600,000 per unit to build new affordable housing but the conversions could be done for $150,000 per unit. The converted motels also have staff to connect residents with services.

“This funding is an unprecedented attempt to address homelessness,” Lipka said, urging municipalities to take advantage of the opportunity to utilize the state funds. “We know that for chronic homelessness, affordable supportive housing infused with services is the solution,” he said.

A homeless woman shares her experience during prerecorded interviews presented at the Lead Me Home summit. “I’ve been living like this on my own, but I don’t dirty it up,” she said. “I take out my trash, you know. I’m a firm believer in you pack it in, you pack it out.” (Video courtesy of Salinas Monterey County Homeless Union/YouTube)

Dhakshike Wickrema, Newsom’s deputy secretary of homelessness, urged leaders to make a plan to tap into the funds available for Project Homekey as well as Project Roomkey, which houses people temporarily in motels rather than converting them into permanent housing, and encampment resolution funds, which are available to jurisdictions that come up with plans to house those who are displaced when homeless encampments are cleared.

Wickrema said the state has made $700 million available in encampment resolution funds over the next two years.

Root Askew from the county Board of Supervisors closed the summit by urging more cities to sign onto the five-year plan, which was developed to tap into such funding sources from the state and federal government.

“We have so much more work ahead of us,” she said.