Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton: On the path from homelessness to hope

Published: Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

Her name is Tina Ford, but the formerly homeless woman with almost no memory of her past life isn't completely sure how she came by it.

She has a vague recollection of a Sacramento mental health official who told her, "You're Tina Ford."

It's better than "Jane Doe," the name once assigned to her by mental health officials in Stockton.

Ford thinks she is 52, but she is not certain.

She has no birth certificate and no memory of relatives who could help her fill the gaps of a life spent in shelters and care facilities.

With no birth certificate, Ford has no Social Security card, which she deeply wants so she can work as a janitor and be independent.

"When you're suffering from hallucinations, you can see a traveled past, but it's not real … . I have memories of the last 10 years, but after that it's blank," said Ford, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder.

What she can recall is life on the streets. "I'm from San Francisco, I gather," Ford said. "Something tells me I was born there. I was sleeping in bus stops. I was begging for change, hopping on the Greyhound bus. I would get off and ask where the homeless shelters were. Sometimes I would stay a month.

"I don't have recollections of brothers and sisters. I just have these frightening nightmares."

The mental health experts working with Ford guess that along with her illness, she may be blocking out terrible memories that manifest themselves in "stern voices" tormenting her subconscious.

On one lost journey to Los Angeles, she said, "I got paranoid and called the fire department and they took me to some clinic and I was there for like two weeks. Then a guy took me to a Greyhound station and bought me a ticket this way."

She figures she has been in the Sacramento area for six years.

Ford could be panhandling, locked in a mental health facility, sleeping in a doorway or in a shelter – all things she said she has done. She could be in an emergency room or a hospital bed, given a kidney condition that will require a transplant at some point. Or she could be in a jail cell.

All are common outcomes for the homeless that come with a significant social cost.

Instead, Ford lives in a tidy south Sacramento apartment complex funded specifically for people like her – people with a history of mental illness and chronic homelessness.

The Boulevard Court apartments on Stockton Boulevard near Fruitridge Road were once a budget hotel generating a large volume of police calls.

Now it's where Ford lives alongside other people trying to get back on their feet. The apartments and the supportive services Ford receives were partially funded by Proposition 63. The oft-maligned yet increasingly consequential Mental Health Services Act – a tax on millionaires passed by California voters in 2004 to fund enhanced mental health services – has been savaged by critics who don't approve of how some of the more than $8 billion raised by the tax has been spent. But Ford is an example of what Proposition 63 money can do and is doing.

In Sacramento, permanent supportive housing is a more meaningful option for homeless people than some of the bad ideas tossed around town – such as a legalized homeless camp that would do nothing to get people back on their feet.

"The Band-Aids, while often necessary, do not end the cycle for people," said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the author of Proposition 63. "When done right, not only can people with serious mental illness reclaim their lives, they can live within neighborhoods."

According to Steinberg's office, there are nearly 2,500 permanent supportive housing units being created statewide through $400 million in MHSA funds. Along with Boulevard Court, there are two others in Sacramento County.

Ford is proof of the need for more.

Service providers from Turning Point, a program offering psychiatric support, also help Ford and some of her neighbors with their medication and other needs.

It's an intensive level of care, but a recent UCLA study found that people who have gone through permanent supportive housing like this were less likely to land in jail, emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals than in the 12 months before they got help.

Will an expansion of Proposition 63 housing solve homelessness in Sacramento? The expectation that any one program would is naive.

"It boils down to people that want to avail themselves of resources," said Phil Serna, a Sacramento County supervisor.

Ford fits the bill. She doesn't want to be on the street and is an example of someone who could be helped with supportive housing as an alternative to shelters and panhandling.

She hopes that in 2013 she is able to get a birth certificate and a kidney transplant and more independence. She wants to look forward.

"It hurts too much to know that I was out there and nobody cared enough to find me," she said. "I kept going, but it hurt."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Marcos Breton

Marcos Breton, news columnist

Marcos Breton

Hello, my name is Marcos Breton and I'm the news columnist with The Sacramento Bee. What's a columnist supposed to do? I'm supposed to make you think, make you laugh, make you mad or make you see an issue in a different way. I'm supposed to connect the dots on issues, people and relationships that cause things to happen or prevent them from happening in our region. I also write a weekly baseball column during the baseball season. I am a voter in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Yes, I have voted for Barry Bonds - twice. I am a native of Northern California. I am the son of Mexican immigrants. I've been at The Bee for more than 20 years, and I love Sacramento.

Phone: 916-321-1096
Twitter: @MarcosBreton

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