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Solutions for Change’ Offers A Model For Homeless Families

Aired 10/7/11 on KPBS News.

San Diego's North County has its share of homeless residents; one program has ambitious goals to end homelessness for families with children.

Evening Edition

About one in five of the San Diego region’s homeless live in North County. Solutions for Change in Vista is working to get homeless families off the street, rebuild their lives, and move them into permanent homes. The program might not work for everybody, but it is a good model for some families with children.

Monique Blackmon and her three children, Deja (aged 16), Trinity (11) and Zion(12) in their room at the intake center of "Solutions for Change,"
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Above: Monique Blackmon and her three children, Deja (aged 16), Trinity (11) and Zion(12) in their room at the intake center of "Solutions for Change,"

KPBS Reporter Alison St John will appear on Thursday's show with more on 'Solutions for Change.'

Evening Edition airs weekdays at 5 PM and 6:30 PM on KPBS TV

Homelessness in San Diego County by region. From the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.
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Above: Homelessness in San Diego County by region. From the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

Monique Blackmon and her three children - aged 11, 12 and 15 - live in a single room with four bunks at the intake center of Solutions for Change. It’s cramped - but it's clean.

“I had to come in and do an interview,” Blackmon said. “I thought that was the strangest thing for a shelter, you had to do an interview? And there was a waiting list, for a shelter! I thought, ‘Is this popular? What is going on here?’”

What is going on is an ambitious plan to get families out of homelessness in 1,000 days.

After a few weeks in the shelter, families move into supported housing in a campus setting. Then, after more than a year, they transition into affordable housing out in the community.

Blackmon says right from the start there is a discipline to the schedule. The families in the intake center get up at 5 a.m. every day. But unlike most other shelters, they don't have to gather all their possessions and go out to spend the day on the streets: They have a work schedule and classes to attend.

She says not everyone can handle the discipline and structure of the program.

“The women are the ones that usually come with the children first,” she said. ”I think men are more leery of coming in to a shelter. I’m noticing that men are coming.”

Blackmon says once the men see the changes happening to the women who stay in the shelter, they get drawn in.

Robert Magracia and Christian Kohlas and their three small children are one of 32 families living on the campus of what’s called the “Solutions University.” It's about a 20-minute walk from the shelter. The couple lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment with a shared kitchen.

Robert Megracia and Christian Kohlas, residents at the Solutions University campus
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Above: Robert Megracia and Christian Kohlas, residents at the Solutions University campus

Magracia followed Kohlas into the program after he was fired from his job as a cook on Camp Pendleton, because he was involved in drugs and gangs. He didn’t want to lose his family.

“When I came here at first, I didn’t like it," Magracia said. "But after a while I got used to it, after taking a couple of classes, getting to know myself better. I started changing from there."

Sitting beside him on the couch, Kohlas agreed.

“It was the classes you go to, to rebuild yourself, to change your old habits, your old behaviors, because they weren’t getting us anywhere,” she said.

At the classes, the families learn skills like job hunting, anger management, good parenting and goal setting.

In the classroom on campus, single dad Irvin Musgrove is cutting out pictures for a collage to illustrate his past, his present and his future.

“To show where we’ve been,” he said. “What brought us here, where we are now and where we want to go in our future.” Musgrave hadn’t found pictures to represent his future yet.

“I have some from my past, when I was incarcerated," he said. "I’ve got when I was homeless before, and then I’ve got my son back.”

He pointed to a picture of a bear with a bear cub: “That’s me and my son."

Everyone meets regularly with case managers and many of the residents also have to attend AA to break addictive habits. They are responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the buildings and the grounds.

What motivates them to stay in this highly structured lifestyle is often a desire to give their children a better life.

In the playroom on campus, several small children play while their parents are in classes or at work. Many of the children are out at school or in childcare during the day, but for those with nowhere else to go, there is a safe, supervised place from them to stay.

Seeing kids on the streets was what motivated Chris Megison to found Solutions for Change more than a decade ago. He is not only working on building the family’s skills to become self-sufficient, he is also building an inventory of affordable housing.

That's because even if a woman has a $12-an-hour job she can’t afford $1,200 or $1,500 in rent each month for herself and her children, Megison said.

Chris Megison, Co-Founder of Solutions for Change
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Above: Chris Megison, Co-Founder of Solutions for Change

“She’s working full time, getting up, suiting up and doing everything she needs to do," he said. "So what we’ve figured out is we’ve got to go after this affordable housing."

Megison has bought dozens of low-income units in places like Fallbrook and Vista so residents can move out into the community. They have to have a job and savings of $2,000 before they can graduate into one of these homes. The program doesn’t end when they move there. In fact, the last 500 days are critical, as they learn to live independently but still have the discipline, structure and support of the Solutions program.

Robert Magracia and Christian Kohlas both have jobs now. Magracia is cooking at Lawrence Welk, and Kohlas works in a thrift store. They hope to move into one of the affordable housing units in the next month or two.

Megison said the cost of supporting a family for a year through the Solutions program is $23,000. He said that’s compared to an estimated $67,000 a year to support a homeless family on social services.

“A lot of them were on CalWORKS,” he said. "They were on food stamps, they were dependent on these types of programs. They’re off that now, and we’ve been able to demonstrate a $28 million dollars in cost savings as a result of taking 600 families off all these programs.”

A third of his funding still comes from local, state and federal government sources, Megison said. A third comes from private donations and a third comes from what the families themselves earn and contribute.

Solutions for Change is not part of North County’s network of homeless shelters. Unlike in the City of San Diego, services for the homeless in North County are not centralized in any one area but provided in several different cities.

Don Stump, president of the North County Alliance for Regional Solutions, said it is a model that works for families who need a lot of structure.

“I think what they’re going to do is build this long-term continuum of care for their clients, who enter through their shelter network, all the way through permanent housing," Stump said. "It’s a good strategy.”

Back at the intake shelter Monique Blackmon is at the beginning of the three year journey, but she’s full of hope.

"I would not have told anyone that you are going to find peace in a shelter,” she said. “I have found such peace here.”

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