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Risen asks: Where are the fathers?
CEO: Addressing countys societal ills could take decades
As a countywide effort is underway to reverse the trend of homelessness, drug abuse and crime, a panhandler stands atop the Hatch Road overpass on Friday. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

The absence of fathers in the home may be the biggest single contributor of societal problems, Stanislaus County Chief Executive Officer Stan Risen hinted last week as he outlined to the Ceres City County a new initiative to tackle a myriad of social issues like drug addiction and homelessness.

It may take decades, Risen said, before the "Focus on Prevention Initiative" bears fruit in the form of reduced crime, fewer homeless persons, a reduction in court cases and less dependence on social services.

"This is going to be a generational exercise," said Risen. "We're probably not going to see the real fruits of what we're trying to do maybe even for 10 years or more."

Risen shared a number of startling statistics about fatherlessness, including that:

• 43 percent of U.S. children live without a father in the home;

• 63 percent of suicides are from fatherless homes;

• 71 percent of pregnant teens lack a father in the home;

• 71 percent of high school dropouts come from homes without dads;

• 85 percent of prison use is tied to those who grew up in fatherless homes;

• 90 percent of homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes.

Risen wonders why those statistics aren't discussed.

"Our society never has a discussion about them," said Risen. "I don't know whether we're afraid it's politically incorrect, whether we're afraid that single moms will not hear the message.

"I have to tell you, I always give the disclaimer: there's no harder challenge than being a single mother. This is about absentee fathers; this is about men who fail to meet their parental responsibility and have left the poor mom hanging to raise the family on her own."

The Initiative seeks to identity what is causing a breakdown in families and ways to hold families intact.

In introducing Risen, Supervisor Jim DeMartini explained that county spends about 75 percent of its $1 billion county budget "dealing with symptoms related to social problems" rather than deal with the root causes of homelessness, and drug addiction and fatherless homes. He noted how the county health, sheriff's, probation, and welfare departments all are affected by societal problems.

"It takes a lot of partners to put something like this on," said DeMartini. "Government alone is not going to be able to solve these problems by itself. Other people have to get involved in private organizations, churches, faith-based groups and alike. That's the only way we're ever going to get ahead and try and reverse the trend."

Risen, a former Ceres City Council member, said the Initiative is "more of a movement" and one that excites him. He said it started when Supervisor Terry Withrow remarked one day, "I wish we could spend more of our money treating the disease rather than always treating the symptoms."

Saying that government cannot be the answer and will fail if perceived to be only a county government effort, Risen explained that the county has gone after "key influencers" in 10 sectors: business, faith-based, government, education, health, media, neighborhoods, non-profit organizations, philanthropy and arts, sports and entertainment.

"It's exciting as we begin to see each of these sectors starting to own some of these issues and challenges themselves," said Risen.

As an example, he noted that a woman in the arts didn't understand how she could help but now is creating a program at Gallo Arts Centre that focuses on stories of homelessness.

The Initiative is taking what Risen called a "results based accountability approach," that starts by asking "What does success look like?" and working backwards from there to develop strategies.

"This isn't about a giveaway, how do just increase programs and services. This is about a journey of mutual accountability ... of those providing the services and those receiving the services."

Four original focuses of the Initiative include reducing homelessness, strengthening families, investing in children and youth and reducing recidivism in the criminal justice system. Risen, however, said the new focus is on things the county strives to provide results:

1). Families are healthy physically, mentally,
emotionally and spiritually;

2). That families are supported by strong and safe neighborhoods and communities;

3). That our children and young people are getting a first-rate education from cradle to career. Risen noted that over 70 percent of third-graders still do not know how the read.

4). That our families are participating and supported by a healthy economy.

Risen said people - county officials included - need to dispense with the stereotypes about homeless persons and quit seeing things as an "us and them" problem.

Risen said that the Homeless Action Council consists of about 100 persons meeting regularly to work up an action plan to reduce homeless populations. Five strategies for tackling homelessness include coordinated access.

"We probably have well over 100 programs and services for homeless people in our community ... but everybody's operating in their silos and doing their own thing."

In some cases, he said, participation in one program can preclude people from qualifying for other programs.

Risen said work is being done on a coordinated site to gather all providers in the same building.

"I envision a day where we have a place for showers, a place for lockers for people who want to go work for the day cleaning up freeways or other parts, maybe even a place where their animals can stay for the day while we find work for them to do."

Those providing services also need to be coordinated, said Risen.

"I've heard anecdotally that you can get up to 25 meals a week at Graceada Park," said Risen. "We have a lot of well-intentioned people wanting to do good things but sometimes we're tripping over each other or we're just treating symptoms and our goal is to get even those providing supportive services working in the same direction in a coordinated fashion."

Services are helping to meet the temporal needs of homeless, but Risen said the person-to-person engagements are what permanently turn lives around. He noted one formerly homeless woman explained that it was repeated efforts of a mental health clinician reaching out to her while she lived in the cemeteries at night who brought her to where she is today.

"Why? Because somebody cared ... it's that engagement, it's that taking a personal interest. It's not expecting the homeless to come to us but it's us going to them and building that relationship and pulling them into the services that we have to offer."

Housing is another issue. He said Stanislaus County is short 21,000 units of affordable housing.

"It's going to be a tough problem to tackle. The only way we're going to tackle it by doing it together."

A May 18 a half-day Faith Based Summit will be held to educate every church pastor and leader to focus on prevention.