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While about 1,200 Imperial County residents go without shelter, nearly $1.7 million earmarked for homeless services in the region is sitting unused in government coffers. 

Only $325,000 of a state grant approved a year and a half ago has been finalized, stalling projects meant to help some of the county’s most vulnerable residents find temporary housing, pay bills and access other services.

Why this matters

Imperial County’s homeless population sharply increased in recent years and has remained high. As COVID-19 hit, all but about 200 of the county’s nearly 1,400 homeless residents were reported to be unsheltered, meaning they’re without temporary or emergency housing.

The county Board of Supervisors didn’t begin voting on contracts for the projects until early April, weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic that has struck the area particularly hard and amplified the county’s crisis of unsheltered homeless residents.

One project on hold is led by the United Way of Imperial County. The group plans to use $75,000 from the county to help pay rent, utility bills and other expenses to prevent residents already struggling financially from becoming homeless, Executive Director Ken Wuytens said.

He said he sees residents seeking these services on a daily basis.

“We’ve been told 30 days now for going on nine to 10 months probably, that we’d be ready to go,” Wuytens said.

The United Way still doesn’t know when it will get the money from the county, he said.

A rural region of 181,000 residents, Imperial County regularly reports a double-digit unemployment rate and 21% of its residents live in poverty. As COVID-19 shut down the economy and prompted job losses across the U.S., the county reported a 28% unemployment rate last month — the highest in the state.

The $1.7 million grant it got from the state was part of an influx of one-time funding to address housing issues and came after the county saw a sharp rise in its homeless population. Last year, about 1,400 residents were reported homeless — a number officials say is likely higher because it’s based on a count volunteers do on a single day. Officials anticipate releasing this year’s numbers sometime this month.

Nonprofit leaders in the region have told inewsource, which has been reporting on the pandemic’s impact on the county, that they are worried COVID-19 will spread among homeless residents. County officials say they’re aware of at least five homeless residents who have tested positive.

Trailers acquired by the Imperial County Department of Social Services to use as quarantine shelters for homeless people who have tested positive for COVID-19 are shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

The county has been providing motel rooms and trailers during the pandemic, and officials were still working to secure additional housing as recently as two weeks ago. All but about 190 of the county’s homeless residents are unsheltered.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Luis Plancarte said he knows nonprofits are frustrated by the county’s pace in awarding the funds from the California Emergency Solutions and Housing Program grant, but he said there is an explanation. County officials decided to instead focus on distributing a bigger pot of homeless funding — $4.86 million the state awarded last year and which has a tighter deadline to spend the money.

Contracts continue to be approved for that money, he said, and some of it has been used to help pay for medical assistance and motel vouchers for homeless residents during the coronavirus outbreak.

As for the $1.7 million state grant, Plancarte said, “Everything is moving forward. I know that everybody wants to see that money on the street right away. We’re trying to put it out there as quick as we possibly can.”

‘A lack of trust’

The California Emergency Solutions and Housing Program was launched in 2018 “to assist persons experiencing or at risk of homelessness,” its website says. Over a two-year period, it’s awarded $83 million to 43 regions.

Funding is based on the counties’ number of homeless residents, low-income families that spend more than half of their income on rent and the percentage of local households below the federal poverty line. It can be used for services such as housing relocation, shelter operations and programs, such as rental assistance, to prevent people from becoming homeless.

San Diego County, where some 7,600 of its 3.3 million residents are homeless, received $3.9 million from the state program. Most of that is going toward rapid rehousing — short-term rental assistance and services, a county spokeswoman said.

Last month, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to put $400,000 of the money into a flexible funding pool. How to spend that money will be decided by the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

In Imperial County, officials were awarded nearly $1.7 million — $1,053,000 for the first year and $627,500 the second. They used a competitive process in the fall of 2018 to decide how to spend the first round of funding, ultimately selecting eight recipients made up of its own departments and local nonprofits.

A consultant hired to help with the process told inewsource county officials expected to sign contracts within a couple months after picking which projects to fund. Twenty months later, only three agreements have been approved.

Imperial County Board of Supervisors Chairman Luis Plancarte is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

Because of the delay in distributing the first round of money, officials have yet to determine how to spend the program’s second round. They won’t begin accepting proposals from nonprofits until all of the initial contracts have been approved.

Plancarte said the county finalized later than expected its own agreement with the state to get the grant funding. The program’s deadline was extended for all counties last year as the state was still signing contracts, a Housing and Community Development spokesperson told inewsource.

County officials had hoped to roll out contracts for local projects earlier this year, Plancarte said, but their attention soon was diverted to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council, the regional homeless agency, determines which proposals will receive the money and how much.

Among the projects picked: rapid rehousing for women with children and seniors living alone; case management for housing; street outreach; support for existing shelters; and countywide homeless data systems. Officials chose projects that would reach Slab City, El Centro, Calexico and Brawley, areas particularly affected by homelessness.

COVID-19 in Imperial County

COVID-19 continues to hit the area particularly hard. Last month, the number of residents who have tested positive more than doubled in less than two weeks.

As of Tuesday, the county has had 1,798 positive cases, with 12,250 people having been tested. Twenty-nine people have died, and 932 have recovered.

The county also has the highest hospitalization rate in the state for coronavirus. Last month, federal and state officials sent extra resources to the county, including testing sites, more health professionals and a mobile medical station.

So far, Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, Calexico Neighborhood House and the county’s own Behavioral Health Services Department have signed contracts, but they have received no money.

First, the nonprofits and government departments must invoice the county after incurring costs, said Veronica Rodriguez, director of county social services. That means the nonprofits, who already are struggling, must cover the cost of services before they can bill for them.

The state requires all of the money to be spent within five years or the county forfeits it.

Wuytens said United Way has seen “little or no movement” on its funding from the county, which will be used to expand a service already offered under the national organization’s emergency food and shelter program.

He blames lengthy contract talks with the county for creating challenges, especially for smaller agencies like his. United Way’s two-person office lacks the money for an attorney to review proposed agreements, Wuytens said. The County Counsel’s Office, in comparison, is staffed with 11 people.

Wuytens also said the county’s proposal — to pay United Way’s $75,000 in installments — would make it difficult to complete the actual project: It needs the money on hand to quickly help residents pay bills before they lose housing or their power is shut off.

“It’s obvious that somewhere there’s a lack of trust, and we’ve been here since 1982,” he said.

Multiple reasons behind the delays

The Sister Evelyn Mourey Center, a 30-year-old El Centro charity, is awaiting its nearly $56,000 from the county. It needs the money to help its staff use software to track and connect homeless clients with housing and other services, said Susan Chasang, the nonprofit’s executive director. It’s also teaming up with Catholic Charities on a project funded by the grant to help 20 households at risk of becoming homeless.

While she and other recipients may be unhappy they haven’t received their funding, Chasang said “delays came from our end, too.” She said she had to submit additional documents after being awarded the funding because of complex and detailed requirements that come with government grants.

Susan Chasang is shown outside of the Sister Evelyn Mourey Center in 2018. (Tom Bodus/Imperial Valley Press)

She also pointed to other changes underway in Imperial County at the time: the Social Services Department took over as the continuum of care’s lead agency, meaning the county for the first time was responsible for the distribution of homeless grant funding. Catholic Charities previously served in that role.

The state homeless money “kind of became a casualty of that, and a casualty for those applying for the grant not knowing entirely what we were up against,” Chasang said.

The transition was expected to better position Imperial County to be more competitive with “much larger, vastly better funded” counties, according to a 2018 homeless report.

Tony Phillips is a technical consultant the county hired to help apply for the homeless grants. He said that while larger recipients WomanHaven and Catholic Charities had prior experience receiving public funds, it was more of a challenge for new groups in line to receive the money.

‘One size doesn’t fit all’ of county’s homeless

Phillips said the county struggles to help some homeless residents who don’t consider themselves homeless at all — and aren’t interested in changing how they live. He pointed to the remote Slab City community, a former military base now occupied by people living off the grid.

“It’s not the same thing as building shelters and transitional housing and permanent structures in downtown L.A. or San Francisco or San Diego,” Phillips said. “It’s different. It’s unique to Imperial — and the answers are going to have to be driven by the people of Imperial because one size doesn’t fit all.”

The county’s only emergency men’s shelter is Lady of Guadalupe, a 50-person facility in Calexico that’s run by Catholic Charities. The nonprofit also has the House of Hope, a 27-person shelter in El Centro for women and children.

The dining area at the emergency homeless shelter in Calexico is shown on April 21, 2020. Catholic Charities operates the shelter. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Vino Pajanor, CEO of Catholic Charities Diocese of San Diego, said COVID-19 has forced the nonprofit to employ around-the-clock-staff, buy equipment and rack up other costs, adding to already tight budgets for the shelters.

But Catholic Charities is further ahead than some nonprofits that help the homeless because it finally has its county contract for the state grant funding. Part of it will be used to support its Imperial Valley shelters, Pajanor said. But with the pandemic, he’s asking: Is it enough?

“Now we have gotten the money, it’s been awarded, how are we going to sustain this?” he said.

Plancarte, an Imperial Valley native and a county supervisor since 2017, said officials will continue to partner with nonprofits and area cities on homeless issues.

“Obviously, funding like this is excellent. But at the end of the day, it’s one-time funding,” he said. “It’s not long-term funding. So it becomes very difficult for any community, any county, any entity, to build and maintain any kind of long-term solution for those that are homeless.”

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering mostly education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times, Jennifer’s award-winning coverage of yearslong corruption helped...