The Homeless

Placer provides glimpse of what Sacramento may expect on tackling homeless challenges

Egbert “Skip” Visker is hugged by resident as he leaves the homeless shelter in Placer County to a new home in Auburn on Wednesday. The formerly homeless man is moving into a home purchased with money from the Whole Person Care grant.
Egbert “Skip” Visker is hugged by resident as he leaves the homeless shelter in Placer County to a new home in Auburn on Wednesday. The formerly homeless man is moving into a home purchased with money from the Whole Person Care grant.

The small room, with a twin bed, bedside table and sliding door to a wraparound deck, felt like too much for Egbert “Skip” Visker, newly arrived from an Auburn homeless shelter.

“I’m feeling overjoyed,” he said, placing his fedora on the nightstand and taking in the view outside the window. It’s a fresh start for Visker, 69, who has shuffled between campsites, homeless shelters and unsuccessful housing placements for years.

His new home is a starting point for Placer County, too.

Sacramento has attracted the lion’s share of local attention for using the federal Whole Person Care program, and Mayor Darrell Steinberg scored a win for the city when Sacramento County on Tuesday approved an additional $44 million to help treat the homeless population.

But Placer County is already months ahead using the same pot of money to treat its homeless population. Placer’s experience may offer a glimpse of what Sacramento officials can expect as they begin trying to solve their larger urban homeless challenges using new federal and state resources.

As of last week, Placer County has found housing for 13 Whole Person Care clients and enrolled over 100 people who are now eligible to receive services from the program.

Officials hope to help 450 homeless people over the course of the five-year, roughly $20 million program. A one-day count of homeless people in the county in January found 663 homeless people, a slight increase from previous years.

Whole Person Care is designed to relieve pressure on hospital emergency rooms by stabilizing the most frequent users, who are often mentally ill, homeless or both. Placer County received approval in late 2016, part of the first wave of state-administered funding for local governments.

Once in the program, a client is matched with a case manager who will do everything from driving clients to doctor’s appointments to helping clients access benefits like Social Security, mental health treatment and employment services, whatever is needed.

“I’ll usually go to the shelter first thing in the morning and check in with everybody,” said Todd Perbetsky, Visker’s case manager. “I might have some stuff scheduled throughout the day, specific appointments with them. And then when I go in the morning, they’ll let me know ‘Hey, I have a doctor’s appointment next week, can you give me help getting there’… and it’ll start stacking up.”

While Perbetsky helps his clients with day-to-day challenges, housing coordinators are trying to find places to put people. A lot of clients have less-than-impressive rental histories, said Placer County Health and Human Services Director Jeff Brown. Housing coordinators work with landlords to assure them that if they rent to a Whole Person Care client, they will have support from Placer County to ensure that client is a model tenant.

By far the biggest challenge is the tight housing market, Brown said, so Whole Person Care staff have to get creative.

“This year, with our acquisitions using some of the resources Sutter provided to our county and using some of our Mental Health Services Act dollars, we’ll be adding roughly 30 units of housing,” Brown said. “So that’s great, but we’re serving over 100 people in one year. So it has to be more than just us being able to build new housing, or purchase new housing. It also has to be working with whatever housing is existing in the community.”

There’s shared permanent housing like Visker’s new place, but staff also find apartment buildings and nursing facilities that will take clients. In some cases, they set people up with roommates so that together, they can afford a unit at market rates.

Case managers and housing coordinators try to tailor solutions to their clients’ individual needs and personalities. For Visker, Perbetsky tried a couple of other housing options, but they were unsuccessful.

“It was hard because he’s really active and he likes to be social, so we thought a board-and-care at first,” Perbetsky said, referring to a specialized assisted living facility.

It was too removed from Visker’s Auburn community. “It kind of disconnected him, so that wasn’t really a perfect fit for him and he didn’t like that,” Perbetsky said. “He likes to be around his people and tell his stories and see his friends and whatnot.”

Purchased with a grant from the Sutter Health Foundation, Visker’s new home is located a few miles south of Meadow Vista and will house five previously homeless people.

Some of Visker’s new housemates are people he knows from the shelter, so Perbetsky is hopeful that this placement will stick. Owned and run by Advocates for Mentally Ill Housing, Inc., the house is one of two purchased so far with the Sutter grant. The other is in escrow.

Other efforts supported by Whole Person Care dollars are aimed at health care. All of the hospitals in the county have implemented PreManage, software that alerts case managers as soon as one of their clients checks into the hospital. And the county opened a five-bed medical respite center for homeless people who are well enough to leave the hospital but too sick to be living on the streets.

It’s run by The Gathering Inn, a longtime Placer County homeless services provider. CEO Keith Diederich said he’s worked all over the country and sees Placer County as uniquely collaborative.

County officials say that coordination between departments, nonprofits, law enforcement and medical professionals, as well has having housing on hand, are the keys to their initial successes.

Geoff Smith, the Whole Person Care program manager, said he built the program with the impression it may take some time and effort to convince chronically homeless people of the county’s sincerity before they would agree to work with a case manager on housing and other services.

“We found, actually pretty quickly, that people are motivated,” Smith said. “We found that if you go out there and talk to them and are consistent, show that you genuinely care about them, and you have housing resources available, which we do... the engagement process is actually pretty easy.”

Visker said he jumped on the opportunity to move into the house when it was offered and his affection for Perbetsky is clear.

Perbetsky helps “any way he can,” Visker said. “He’s a hell of a guy, he’s like my son.”

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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