Last year, the City of Fontana began a different approach to addressing homelessness.

Rather than arresting the homeless and feeding the revolving door at the jail with a steady stream of destitute scofflaws, the city began offering a helping hand.

Enter Eric Gavin and his organization: Open Door Community Partners.

After 25 years in the tech industry, Gavin changed gears and began using his thirst for data and research to tackle the homeless problems in his community.

He started in Upland in 2017. Thanks to his efforts, the city’s point-in-time homeless count dipped from 127 to 58 over a two-year period. He also learned what intervention methods worked best and discovered more local resources for the homeless.

In Fontana, he now works hand-in-hand with members of the Fontana Police Department Multiple Enforcement Team (MET), who have worked for years to assist and support Fontana’s homeless population, while maintaining quality of life for residents. It turns out that Open Door and Fontana’s MET were just what the other needed.

Gavin embraces the Housing First philosophy.

“Step one is let’s get you into housing, then we’ll deal with the other issues,” he said. “It’s important to treat it not as Housing ONLY, but rather to understand that once they are in housing that is just the beginning.”

He teamed up with Team Heart Ministries -- a nonprofit that rents low-cost rooms in single-family homes to homeless persons --to begin getting people off the street.

While many homeless persons receive Social Security or other government assistance, most cannot afford the market rate for apartments in the area, so low-cost living arrangements like those offered by Team Heart Ministries are critical, Gavin said.

Housing is an important first step because it provides stability for the client, and it helps clients connect with social workers and others trying to help them overcome addictions or ensure they take medication to control serious mental health problems.

“Immediately, their morale goes up and they feel better, and most important, we know where they are,” Fontana Police Officer Mike Hall said. “It’s amazing how much better a success we get when we know exactly where someone is at.”

Hall and Gavin are the go-to persons for homeless issues in the city because of their close partnerships with local service providers and their successful track record.

“We don’t have a bunch of hoops we have to jump through,” Hall said. “We can get things in motion in a matter of minutes or hours.”

Gavin praised the tenacity and dedication of San Bernardino County Behavioral Health professionals who have helped with recent cases like the mentally ill woman known for flashing passing motorists and dragging road kill on a leash. Once she started taking her medication, she was ready to begin rebuilding her life.

Gavin said he focuses his efforts on helping individuals who have documented ties to Fontana as their home rather than on transients passing through.

“We offer (them) help in terms of transportation if they need to get back to where they’re from,” Gavin said. “But, if you are a Fontana resident, we have a much broader program to help you get back on your feet.”

The new approach to addressing homelessness works better than arresting homeless individuals for misdemeanor crimes and taking them to jail, where they would get cited and released, Hall said.

“Where do you think they migrated to?” Hall asked. “Right back to the place they know best, and now we’re dealing with the same exact problem again … It makes no sense for our community.”

“This direct collaboration between police and social service providers like Open Door comes at a timely moment in history when we’re re-examining how we can maintain law and order and improve public safety while not holding our law enforcement agencies responsible for so many social service functions,” Gavin said.

(San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford represents the 2nd District, which includes part of Fontana. This article originally appeared in the Rutherford Report.)

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