Reaching Inside the Jails to Break the Cycle of Homeless Arrests

homeless arrests

Victor Key, case manager for Project 180, left with Ellis Pickering, right and Aaron Float, center who are being released at Los Angeles County Jail, as a condition of probation they are entering an interim housing program designed to lead to permanent housing. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A door opened, and three men walked out of captivity into a sun-drenched waiting area. It’s a scene repeated hundreds of times a day at Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail.

But instead of being greeted by family members and friends, these men were met by Victor Key, a case manager for Project 180, a downtown agency that is on the front line of a homeless strategy called jail in-reach.

The three men had been arrested for felonies. A psychiatrist had diagnosed them with mental illnesses that contributed to their crimes.

All agreed to take a step that could end years of homelessness and incarceration. As a condition of probation they would enter an interim housing program designed to lead to permanent housing. It’s part of a new effort by Los Angeles County aimed at breaking the cycle of incarceration among the mentally ill and substance abusers. By providing a small percentage of homeless being released from jail a path other than back on the streets, officials hope to reduce the chronic recidivism that has long plagued this portion of the homeless population.

In a region where homelessness is on rise and solutions remain vexing, the program is being closely watched and has received an infusions of both public and private money.

In a region where homelessness is on rise and solutions remain vexing, the program is being closely watched and has received an infusions of both public and private money.

After a quick briefing, Key led them across the street to a van. Thirty minutes later, they walked into a freshly painted gray and orange building on West Vernon Avenue, a recently opened crisis housing center run by First to Serve Outreach Ministries.

The men were assigned bunks in one of the shelter’s mini-dorms, each holding four to eight men or women. That would be their home for three to six months while case managers worked with them to acquire permanent apartments with medical and mental health support.

Their choreographed release from jail was arranged by the Office of Diversion and Reentry, an agency within the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services Although it does not directly target homelessness, the inmate housing program contributes to the county homeless initiative because its clients are generally also homeless.

The Office of Diversion and Reentry grew out of L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey’s 2015 report “Blueprint for Change,” addressing the treatment of the mentally ill by law enforcement and the justice system.

“Our jail should not be used to house people whose behavior arose out of an acute mental health crisis merely because it is believed — whether correctly or otherwise — that there is no place else to take that person to receive treatment instead,” the report said.

The county Board of Supervisors created the office in November 2015 and funded it with $100 million to start and $30 million annually. Besides jail in-reach, the office also operates sobering centers and recuperative centers for homeless people leaving hospitals.

The office contracts for interim beds across the city and can draw on the county’sflexible housing subsidy pool to place 150 former inmates into permanent housing each year.

The program’s capacity will soon more than double. In October it received a $10-million commitment from organizations including the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and UnitedHealthcare to subsidize housing for 250 more a year for four years.

Under a funding model called Pay for Success, the sponsors are lending the money to the county and will be reimbursed if the program meets its recidivism and housing retention goals. At the end of the contract the county will be responsible for maintaining the subsidies.

For now their goal is modest — making sure that every homeless inmate is entered in the database used by social agencies across the county to prioritize people for housing. Despite past encounters with case workers, few of them are in the database, outreach workers with Project 180 say.

Homeless people in encampments are often reluctant to answer questions on the street but have an incentive when they’re in jail.

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Doug Smith
Los Angeles Times

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