By Deb Murphy
A vehicle fire in the foothills recently took a good friend’s home. Yes, he lived in his compact motor home, so he was homeless by the conventional definition.
A Vietnam vet, he is part of a small community within a community. He shared great stories, followed local news and gave pep talks on regaining your power with friends who worry about how he’s going to get out of this jam.
His is just one face of the homeless in Inyo County.
Last January, volunteers with the Consortium of Care counted 63 homeless people in Inyo, Mono and Alpine counties. But there’s a glitch in what looks like a relatively small number of folks with no conventional roof over their heads.
“We think this represents a fraction of the population,” said Supervisor Jeff Griffiths.
The national count was held at night in the dead of winter when it was anticipated the urban homeless would be conveniently housed in shelters. In Inyo, there are no shelters.
The homeless are dispersed in the back country, at campsites, along the Owens River, or couch surfing at friends’ homes, according to participants, Griffiths and Larry Emerson, Inyo/Mono Advocates for Community Action’s housing and planning director. “It makes our count a challenge,” said Griffiths.
Those 63 identified homeless aren’t going to raise many red flags from funding sources.
IMACA initiated the Consortium, a federal program, in 2013. “Based on the clients coming to the office,” Emerson said, “we determined there was a need to initiate homeslessness prevention and homelessness programs. It’s a coalition of stakeholders that provide services.”
In addition to federal and state funding, the program provides a way to coordinate services, a more efficient way to share resources, Emerson said.
So, who are the county’s homeless? According to Emerson and Griffiths, “they’re an eclectic group.” In other words, they look like the rest of Inyo’s population: veterans, families, males, both young and old. Some were hanging on to a permanent address, then lost jobs or had health issues. Others have underlying issues that have to be resolved in conjunction with finding a stable home. They live where they hope to be invisible.
The Consortium members speak to some of the needs: Wild Iris, Inyo’s Department of Health and Human Services, faith-based organizations Homelessness has many facets. IMACA’s programs address just some of those facets. “We can take people off the street,” said Emerson, “find a landlord willing to work with us, pay first months’ rent and deposit. Then we start providing supportive services to keep them there.”
“People without a home can’t get a job,” Griffiths added. “Rapid Rehousing puts them on the path to self-sufficiency.”
IMACA also helps those at risk of losing their housing.
The best funded sub-group, Emerson said, is homeless veterans. “We’re focusing our efforts on outreach to this group, to get them the assistance they need.”
Bishop and IMACA have been working on the 71-unit Silver Peaks low-income housing project for years. Currently, the site is being appraised for purchase from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. When completed, the project will be one of those “all boats rise” projects.
As folks move from low-rent areas into Silver Peaks, opportunities to house more people will open up. When you live in a tent, housing amenities aren’t as relevant as a roof and a bathroom.
Inyo County’s role focuses on the root causes of homelessness. “The issues of poverty have to be addressed,” said H&HS Assistant Director Marilyn Mann, issues like education, job training, access to medical/mental health care.
Inyo’s Wellness Center, a drop-in day facility, addresses some of those issues. The Calworks program helps find jobs. But, in a valley focused on the tourist industry with its minimum wage jobs and disproportionately expensive housing, it’s an uphill battle.