Shelter pegged as Los Banos' most urgent need for homeless

By Corey Pride / Cpride@losbanosenterprise.comNovember 23, 2012 

Grant applications for money to help the homeless are due to the federal government in January, and the county organization that drafts the request was recently in Los Banos.

"We don't know what goes on in the community until we come to see who's doing what," said Alicia Ochoa-Jones, the Merced County Association of Governments' Continuum of Care coordinator.

On Nov. 14, Ochoa-Jones met with about 20 people, including, pastors, community volunteers and social workers to create a list of the three most urgent needs of Los Banos' homeless population. Ochoa-Jones said the items will be included in a countywide application to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She said there's up to $247,000 available from HUD.

The Continuum of Care has been able to secure $281,000 for Los Banos in the past two years, and $2.5 million countywide. That money pays for 10 Los Banos beds overseen by Merced County Mental Health. The program also provides vouchers for homeless veterans.

Los Banos has 75 homeless -- 60 men and 15 women, according to an official count conducted at the beginning of the year.

Last week community members told Ochoa-Jones that permanent housing for homeless who do not have mental health issues is needed. She agreed, saying it's hard to acquire money for people down on their luck.

"I get those calls often," Ochoa-Jones said. "When you apply for money with HUD you typically want to tell them how you're going to help those most in need. Those that have mental problems, physical disabilities and developmental disabilities are certainly more vulnerable than 'I just lost everything and I have nowhere to go.' "

The Rev. Phil Jenkins said Los Banos should utilize some of the housing it already has available. He said sometimes cities don't use what's available to them. He mentioned Atwater's failure to use apartments near its airport as an example.

The Rev. Steve Hammond said a shelter for women and men is likely the biggest need.

"Right now homeless men are probably our biggest demographic we need to help," Hammond said.

Audrey Slocum of the Merced County Mental Health Department said she cannot get the homeless to go to the Merced shelter.

"I offer them bus tokens, I say I'll give them a ride. ... They say absolutely not. They just won't do it. They just don't want to leave Los Banos," Slocum said.

Ochoa-Jones said the reason they won't leave is because "this is home."

A resource center where the homeless can find available services in one location was also suggested.

The Continuum of Care won't be notified if it has received grant money until October.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Stonegrove said she is pleased with what was listed as Los Banos' most pressing needs for the homeless.

"The No. 1 priority is to get an emergency shelter in Los Banos, but there's also a number of other needs for the homeless in the community," Stonegrove said. "It's really important to make this program a priority, not just this year but in the future."

Ochoa-Jones said HUD is also offering grant money to help pay for her position. She said the Merced County Association of Governments will have to compete for the funding.

Receiving the grant money for Ochoa-Jones' position may be important for Los Banos to remain part of the Continuum of Care. The Los Banos City Council rejected a proposal to pay MCAG $12,000 to be part of the group earlier this year. Los Banos is still in the Continuum because Merced County Supervisor Jerry O'Banion donated the money on its behalf.

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