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Finding a Way Home
updated: Mar 01, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

Lester Rush sits with his dog Sandy in a courtroom at the Santa Barbara Superior Court. Emily Allen, a Legal Aid Foundation lawyer, kneels next to Rush and quietly talks to him while the bailiff asks the room to come to order and Superior Court Commissioner Pauline Maxwell takes her seat atop the bench.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome," Maxwell says to several professionals from law enforcement, mental health services, social work and legal aid, as well as a few dozen homeless individuals. Maxwell swiftly moves from case to case, spending a few minutes on each person, asking how they feel, if they are going to treatment and if they are keeping up on their medicine.

Santa Barbara Restorative Police Officer Keld Hove asks a series of follow-up questions and offers some individuals rides to treatment or help with whatever else they need, within reason.

Lester Rush, who has been homeless in Santa Barbara for more than 13 years, stands in Department 7 of Santa Barbara Superior Court. He's trying to secure housing through the city's Restorative Court program. (Alex Kacik)

Among those reporting to Maxwell is a man whose hands are shaking from alcohol withdraws and who is trying to get into the Rescue Mission in Ventura. Another recently spent a weekend in Santa Barbara County Jail after being caught with an open container.

Rush hears his name called and walks Sandy to the stand. He is wearing plaid shorts and a short-sleeve shirt on this brisk December morning. Rush is not here to get a sentence or a citation, but rather the opportunity to live under a roof for the first time in 13 years. He tells Maxwell that he had his second interview at El Carrillo, the City of Santa Barbara Housing Authority apartments that house and provide services for homeless individuals.

He still needs to complete a background check, get his birth certificate and finish paperwork. Maxwell and Hove congratulate Rush and the courtroom fills with applause.

"I think it's going to all work in your favor as long as you stay on the same track you've been on for the last six months," says Hove.

This is a glimpse into Restorative Court, an initiative started in 2011 that replaces stints in jail with treatment, housing and other services for homeless, chronic low-level offenders.

"It's getting harder to live outside," Rush, who started the process to get into housing about three years ago, told Mission and State. "Qualifying for a house seems to be the biggest issue for a lot of people. There's nothing guaranteed even if you go through the system that you're going to get in."

While Rush doesn't have housing yet, Restorative Court strives to keep repeat offenders out of the Santa Barbara County Jail and hospitals. Mayor Helene Schneider is proud of the program, Santa Barbara's affordable-housing developments and its homeless prevention and rapid-rehousing program. Schneider, however, recognizes it's only a start.

"Just looking at the individuals, what their court records used to be and how their lives are totally changed around now is tremendous," she says. "Part of it is a very individual story. Behind the data are people and their lives. I've heard from business owners that they have a sense that things are getting better. I think having the presence of our homeless outreach providers and community service liaisons as part of restorative policing has a very positive impact with the downtown area."

Schneider will talk about how Santa Barbara is tackling homelessness at the "Homelessness Action Summit: The Latest on What Works," which will be held Feb. 24 starting at 7:30 p.m. at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall.

While other communities have asked Santa Barbara about implementing something similar to its Restorative Court program, the summit organizers-Social Venture Partners Santa Barbara and the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness-hope that Santa Barbara can learn from how other cities address homelessness.

Among the featured speakers are Philip Mangano, president and CEO of the American Roundtable to Abolish Homelessness and former director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, and Becky Kanis, director of the national 100,000 Homes Campaign and co-founder of Social Change Agency. Jody Ketcheside, the deputy regional director of Turning Point of Central California, Inc. in Fresno-a nonprofit that offers transitional shelters, rehabilitation, food and other supportive services-will also speak, and Anne Lansing, the City of Pasadena Housing Department project planner, will discuss how Pasadena has reduced homelessness there by 37 percent.

Kanis and 100,000 Homes were recently featured on CBS's 60 Minutes. It's a model that recognizes that service providers can't offer consistent treatment to people living on the street and seeks to stabilize living situations by providing permanent housing.

While housing someone who is still using drugs and alcohol or has untreated mental-health issues may seem counterintuitive, paying for monthly rent is much less expensive than the cost of law enforcement, incarceration and hospitalization, says Kanis. According to statistics published in 2006 by the late homeless advocate and former Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Roger Heroux, Cottage Health Systems annually spends around $7.2 million to provide services to homeless individuals. Meanwhile, according to the study, it cost the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department more than $4.7 million annually to incarcerate homeless individuals.

Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the full article on Mission&State.org



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