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How Three Special Districts Made the Difference for the Homeless in their Communities

By Kristin Withrow posted 12-14-2021 12:05 PM


By Kristin Withrow, Districts Make the Difference Communications Specialist

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It has been said that special districts are the most local form of government.  Created by the community, for the community, special districts perform essential functions and provide essential services defined by their charter as established in their formation. 

So what do a southern California water conservation district, a California coastal park district and a northern California park district have to do with helping the issue of homelessness?

They’ve each concluded the homelessness crisis is everybody’s business, and therefore everybody can help in the solution.

They’ve each done their due diligence to assess the resources they could utilize in a fiscally responsible manner, and they’ve each been realistic with the capabilities of their district to pivot to such a complex issue when their mission doesn’t specifically include homelessness. They’ve assessed the liability involved, consulted their legal counsel, and determined a path that makes strides to help the homeless rather than simply moving them along to become someone else’s problem. One intrinsic tenet of special districts is the core mission to work for with their community, for their community. 

Each of these special districts are making a difference in the homeless community residing in their larger community.  They’ve found a shift of focus away from seeing the homeless as a nuisance to instead recognize their humanity; to bring helpful resources to them as individuals with the goal of helping people experiencing homelessness become productive community members again.

Three Special Districts: Three Strategies to Help

San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District (SBVWCD)

In southern California’s San Bernardino Valley, the water conservation district found themselves encountering homeless individuals on the 7000 acres of land they manage.  Charged with protecting the land and all its creatures, including endangered species, the district’s main function is “helping nature store our water,” explained the General Manager Daniel Cozad.  He describes himself as a “reluctant homelessness management person.”

From the district’s focal point of conservation, it was apparent that long term habitation of the Wash area or encampments results in habitat

Aerial view of tents lining a bike pathdestruction for the species they protect.  “Our ‘good neighbor policy’ was in conflict with our initial homelessness policy (of moving people along),” stated Cozad.

San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District (SBVWCD) maintains land for water recharge that included a structure for employees. The district partnered with an organization called Steps 4 Life Community Services to allow them to offer transitional housing  services out of the existing structure.

“Living outdoors is not the same as living indoors. People have to learn how to live inside again,” explained Cozad. Steps 4 Life’s website states their mission is to "empower individuals and families to receive the necessary training, education and life-skills that will allow them to re-enter society as positive individuals in our communities.”

Since 2019, the program has helped 39 individuals.  Of those, 79% have been able to move back into the community in their own housing and maintain jobs to sustain themselves.  8 people required higher care and were placed in appropriate programs for their needs.  1 formerly homeless individual has become an intern of the district and has been working with the field staff’s mentorship.

Isla Vista Recreation & Park District

Further north in Santa Barbara County, the Isla Vista Park District (IVPD) was also experiencing significant community issues from homeless encampments in their 57 acres of parks and open spaces. The small community near the University of California at Santa Barbara campus was home to approximately 100 homeless people living in makeshift encampments, which resulted in community members who were frustrated and afraid to use the parks.

Tents with portable toilets and trash receptacles nearby
The district formed partnerships with service providers such as the Department of Public Health, law enforcement, the District Attorney, county supervisors and others to create the Covid-19 Encampment Management Policy (CEMP).  The program would temporarily provide guidance for accommodating this community of homeless people who were affected deeply by Covid-19.  Safety guidelines were developed, along with a plan for sanitation facilities to provide bathrooms, trash collection and temporary emergency shelters in specific locations organized into 12 x 12 foot spaces.  Each square space was outlined using erosion control materials to provide a sense of space for the occupant and to encourage everyone to maintain the boundaries that would accommodate access for emergency personnel and services to group together for effectiveness.

The program goal, to efficiently, safely and humanely provide a space to live and access to resources, was made possible only through the community partnerships and tireless work by the park district’s 10 full time staff members and 3 part time employees.

“Every human has a right to water, shelter and food,” stated General Manager Kimberly Kiefer, adding the statistics show, “it can take 7-14 contacts with a homeless person before they trust enough to use the resources you provide.” The partnership with law enforcement and the District Attorney was a key factor: no person was arrested for being homeless or sleeping on the streets in the creation of this program.

One important ingredient to the CEMP program was an exit strategy.  To be fiscally responsible, the district knew this program could not be sustained indefinitely. Beginning in June, the makeshift community was phased out one grid at a time.  The formerly homeless occupants had been put in touch with rehabilitative resources and given a chance to re-connect with their humanity. As a result of the program, the district has received numerous reports of people who took advantage of the resources they were introduced to in the CEMP and have become productive members of the community.  Some were also identified as higher need during the program and were referred to appropriate resources for further help.


Fulton-El Camino Recreation & Park District


In the suburbs near the California Capitol, Fulton-El Camino Recreation and Park District General Manager Emily Ballus has 10 years of prior experience serving on a board that deals directly with homelessness.  When the park district began seeing homeless residents taking shelter in their 7 parks and 2 undeveloped acres of land, they reacted with a sense of compassion coupled by their duty to operate the parks effectively.

Ballus noted, “we have a large population of low income residents and over 5500 homeless people.” The community has also grown to accommodate an Afghan population that is expected to grow with the recent influx of refugees.  To compound the homelessness dilemma, they only have 200 shelter beds in the area and the cost of housing has soared with the pandemic.

Row of white tiny homes
The district has been developing a plan for the joint development of a community center and a series of small homes to use as interim housing.  As with the other special districts who’ve tackled the crisis, this district has forged significant partnerships with community resources – including the library, an energy agency, adult protective services, a local non-profit and a refugee rescue group dedicated to the Afghan community.


The Crisis of Homelessness is not Isolated to California: But Californians can Help


While it seems to be on the forefront and many people believe housing insecurity has dramatically increased, homelessness is an issue that has actually decreased since the US Department of Housing and Urban Development began tracking it in 2007.  In their 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, data show the 647,258 homeless in 2007 have decreased to 580,466 in 2020; however, the data collected was pre-pandemic.  There are distinctions between sheltered and unsheltered homeless and chronic or temporary homelessness.  The phenomenon of unsheltered homelessness is highest along the west coast. In California, 70% of the homeless population is unsheltered.  Other coastal states show high figures as well: Oregon (61%), Nevada (61%) and Hawaii (57%). California’s enormous population of 39.6 million people vastly exceeds all other states in the US (the next most populous is Texas with 29.7 million); therefore, the number of homeless people is also dramatically high with 161,548 people estimated to be homeless in 2020.  This means California’s large homeless population is highly visible due to its unsheltered status.

Special districts in the state have a mission to serve their community.  It is not necessarily within their scope to aid the homeless; however, in utilizing their resources in a fiscally responsible manner and partnering in their community, they are finding ways to make a positive impact on the problem.

As the San Bernardino Valley’s Steps 4 Life Community Service motto says, “Each one helps one.” Perhaps if every Californian begins to explore what small steps they can take, a solution will rise from the collective effort.

CSDA would like to extend our gratitude to Melissa Kuehne, senior program manager for the Institute for Local Government, for coordinating the presentation of these districts' separate stories at our 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibitor Showcase; and to Daniel Cozad, Kimberly Kiefer and Emily Ballus for your excellent presentations and willingness to share your stories with other special district leaders at the conference.