The Great Recession that began in 2007 dealt a severe economic blow to San Bernardino County. Unemployment and foreclosure rates skyrocketed and were among the highest in the nation. The City of Ontario (pop. 166,134), located in western San Bernardino County, was not immune to these harsh economic conditions. A group of homeless people established an encampment area in an industrial area of Ontario in November 2007. The camp expanded to include more than 400 chronically homeless individuals from as far away as Florida. The homeless group had a great need for various services, including basic human necessities, security, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and mental health services.

The City of Ontario partnered with Mercy House Living Centers to create a full-service continuum of care that would provide the social and capital infrastructure necessary to transition all segments of Ontario’s homeless population into stable housing.

“We had to work together with a variety of governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations if we were to develop a full-service homeless program with the limited resources that were available,” says Mayor Paul S. Leon.

The program used a multiphased, multifaceted approach to homelessness with several major components.

Temporary Homeless Services Area (THSA). The city established an area to temporarily serve Ontario’s chronically homeless. The THSA provided bathrooms, showers, food distribution, tents and 24/7 security. Services encompassed case management and assistance in securing entitlement benefits, obtaining government issued identification and searching for permanent housing. Mercy House Living Centers also coordinated the delivery of food and social services, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and fellowship opportunities with 11 local churches.

The San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health provided mental health services and assistance in relocating qualified persons into appropriate housing.

Temporary Intake Center. The center was created to serve as the starting point where homeless people and those at risk for homelessness could access services, such as emergency case management, basic hygiene kits, bus vouchers, motel vouchers, food vouchers, utility assistance, ID card assistance, prescription drug funding, telephone access, employment and housing assistance and referrals to other community services.

Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program. This program provided financial assistance ranging from security and utility deposits and short-term rental assistance, to extensive rapid rehousing assistance that provided up to 12 months of rental and utility assistance with case management targeted specifically for THSA clients.

Assisi House Transitional Housing Facility. Single men, single women, and women with children were provided sleeping quarters through this facility’s 34-bed transitional housing program.

Permanent Housing Units. The project acquired and rehabilitated 10 buildings to create 62 permanent affordable housing units. The extensive rehabilitation of these properties had transformative effects on the surrounding neighborhoods and employed more than 370 construction workers. The units range in affordability and size to meet diverse needs and to help ensure neighborhood acceptance. Tenants range from extremely low-income to low- and moderate-income households.

Priority for residency is given to homeless individuals who are assisted by providers participating in the program. In addition, 12 of the residential units are available to individuals with mental illness who are chronically homeless. These supportive housing services use project-based vouchers.

After-Care Services. Supportive housing services are provided to permanent housing residents to help them remain stably housed.

Making a Difference

The strategy was implemented in phases, and the final permanent housing units were completed and available for lease in January 2012. To date, the program has achieved remarkable results.

The THSA population was reduced from more than 400 to three individuals. The San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health placed 37 individuals in different housing settings (including 90-day detox programs, board and care facilities and transitional housing) and provided 137 people with mental health services. The City of Ontario placed 31 persons into permanent housing with rapid rehousing assistance and monthly case management provided by Mercy House Living Centers.

The Temporary Intake Center has assisted 16,365 unduplicated individuals since January 2007. During the same time period, Assisi House has provided services to 411 unduplicated individuals and families. More than 90 percent of the clients secure permanent housing when they exit the program. The Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing served 200 households including chronically homeless referrals from the THSA.

“One of the program’s amazing successes was that approximately 60 percent of the chronically homeless households, which received 12-month rental and utility assistance, remained housed at the time of exiting the program. This is a stunning success rate given that the average household income of these individuals was less than $5,000 annually and that these individuals had a collective average of street homelessness that exceeded 888 days prior to entering permanent housing,” says Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House Living Centers.

Approximately 36 percent of the new leases are occupied by homeless or formerly homeless families. To date, all of these formerly homeless tenants are performing the functions and duties necessary to retain their permanent housing.

The housing units generate net rents of approximately $310,000 and help support the program’s ongoing operational costs.

The city council’s commitment to developing strategies and taking action to minimize the negative impacts of the global financial downturn played a central part in the success of Ontario’s comprehensive homeless program.

“Ontario has created a compassionate homeless program that works,” says Mayor Leon. “It hasn’t been easy, but the city council has remained committed to providing a way out of homelessness for our most vulnerable people.”

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Contact: Brent Schultz, housing and municipal services director; phone: (909) 395-2317; email:

The City of Ontario won the 2013 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence in the Housing Programs and Innovations category. For more about the award program visit

© 2014 League of California Cities®. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the March 2014 issue of Western City® magazine, the monthly publication of the League of California Cities®. For related information, visit