Why Solutions for Change refused to adopt Housing First model

Why Solutions for Change refused to adopt Housing First model
Solutions for Change owns an organic farm that produces 120,000 pounds of certified organic food per year sold to local school districts, which helps with the nonprofit’s costs. Courtesy photos

It doesn’t take all that long to figure out that Chris Megison, the CEO and president of Solutions for Change headquartered in Vista, is a straight shooter. He has a relentless passion for helping others, and when he believes something isn’t quite right, his inner conviction takes hold.

Chris Megison

Solutions for Change is a nonprofit that helps the homeless in North County. It decided to turn away government funding after federal and state policy changes enforced a Housing First protocol in 2016. Solutions for Change provides a drug-free and sober housing environment whereas Housing First does not. 

Solutions for Change refused to restructure its program model and principles for government funding.

“What has happened is that California, and our entire public system, has operationalized our whole response to homelessness with a co-dependent mindset,” Megison said. “We drew a line in the sand for Solutions for Change. We said we’re not going to convert to Housing First and we gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Megison said Solutions for Change turned away $600,000 in government funding because it would not allow narcotic and drug users in its program.

Before Solutions for Change became a part of Megison’s life, he was a drug and alcohol counselor. When Solutions for Change was established in 1999, it was decided that the nonprofit must find permanent solutions, not temporary ones, for families.

“It starts with why we must get these families out of these horrible conditions and into a position where they never will be homeless again,” Megison said. “And the way we have to do that is going deep and finding out what caused it.”

Megison said what troubles him is the way the state of California is viewing dependency.

“They (state of California) are normalizing drug use through the different bills that are coming out and the laws that they’re passing,” he said. “There is a cadre of us who see this and who’ve been in this (industry) for years that are just incredulous on how bad it has gotten.” He added that the laws lean toward reduction methods. 

According to Megison, one example of harm reduction is Housing First. Megison said that a homeless provider is not even incentivized to help addicts because the state government gets this population off the street and behind a door.

“ … (the state government) is literally paying for their housing thereby essentially containing them, which I use a definition of a containment model,” said Megison, calling it catastrophic. “This is essentially creating an entire society of people who have just given up, and the government now is enabling them in creating a co-dependent system.” 

Megison pointed out that about 40 percent of the entire homeless population is made up of families. Here in San Diego County, there about 9,000 homeless people. In North County alone, that number is in the neighborhood of 2,000 homeless mothers, fathers and their children. 

Megison said that the government design of Housing First is rather compelling. He said people have asked him that if a mother is using drugs and cannot get on her feet, why she can’t stay at Solutions for Change and be checked up on every couple of days.

Sure, it sounds like it’s a compassionate way of doing things, Megison said, but it’s not their way of doing things. If someone is addicted to drugs, Megison said they help them get into a treatment center, and once they are sober, they can go to Solutions for Change.

Megison said there is no exclusion — their nonprofit is there for people in need. However, the decision to stop using drugs is a choice that people need to make to be part of Solutions for Change.   

“Our parents that come to us ask for safe, sober drug-free housing,” he said. “They’ve lived in housing where people are using drugs, and they have had horrible experiences with drug addiction — many of which have lost their kids and been taken from Child Protective Services. Now, they got their kids back. They want and need to be in drug-free housing.”

Megison said things can get ugly fast at non-sober housing.

“We know this because we work with other places that are doing it, and they’re experimenting with it and it’s not working well for them,” he said.

Megison said another top reason why sober, drug-free housing is needed is for the children is that it’s not right nor fair to put children in that kind of situation — and Megison said every time he reminds people of this, they agree.

Since its inception, Solutions for Change has helped more than 900 homeless families and their 2,500 kids who were living in cars and tents.

Megison explained most homeless nonprofits are 50 to 60 percent funded by the government. When Solutions for Change noticed the direction government funding was beginning to shift, the nonprofit started reducing its dependence on those funds.

“In 2016, we were only 15 percent funded by the government,” he said, noting this is very unusual.

Solutions for Change set its sights on being 100 percent free of government funding in 2019 to 2020.

What helped achieve this goal is that Solutions for Change owns a two-and-a-half-acre farm and 30,000 square-foot greenhouse about three miles away from its Vista headquarters. Its farm grows 120,000 pounds of certified organic food per year. According to Megison, theirs is the most extensive aquaponics farm operation in the Western United States.

“The parents of our program work the farm, and we sell the food to the school districts,” Megison said. “The revenue goes to underwrite the cost for families going through Solutions for Change.”

Megison said it wasn’t that Solutions for Change didn’t want to be partners with taxpayers, but the organization just couldn’t comply with the government demands of accepting drug use in its housing. 

Despite donations and their farm, returning $600,000 a year to the government was still a lot of money. To narrow that gap, Solutions for Change began a privately led fundraising effort called “Bridge to Freedom.” Graduates from the nonprofit started it.

A recurring donation of $24 a month was the goal. At the end of 2016, the Bridge of Freedom campaign raised nearly $450,000, which helped tremendously. But there was still a shortfall. 

In 2017, Solutions for Change sought financial help from Vista, Carlsbad, Oceanside, San Marcos and Escondido. The city of San Marcos contributed $126,000 and the city of Vista gave $140,000.

The other cities declined to help despite Solutions for Change assisting homeless families in those towns.

“I told them I’d be back,” Megison said.

And Megison is hopeful that his persistence will pay off.

To learn more about Solutions for Change and its Bridge to Freedom campaign, visit http://solutionsforchange.org.

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