Community Editorial: OC Needs to Face Facts About Homelessness

Homeless man sitting at Orange County's Civic Center

In the wake of this month's serial killings of homeless people in north Orange County as well as last summer's police beating death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, Voice of OC's Community Editorial Board sat down this week with Steve Kight, chief strategy officer for the OC Partnership and Ryan Burris of the OC Rescue Mission to discuss how the county is addressing homelessness.

It's not a pretty picture nor an easy issue. And the message isn't one that Orange County handles very well on a perceptual or practical level.

While all counties are required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness, Orange County has lagged behind others in developing coordinated approaches to battling homelessness, Kight told the editorial board.

Right now "we have a very fragmented system," Kight said, noting that counties such as Los Angeles have many more resources devoted to homelessness.

Burris talked to editorial board members about the challenges of being on the front lines in Orange County.

He said the biggest challenge often times comes from cities that don't want to accept their responsibilities to provide temporary or transitional housing or want to deal only with private-sector feeding efforts.

"They refuse to admit they even have homeless people that live there," Burris said.

Take for example the City of Dana Point. Burris noted that city officials have recently adopted ordinances that prevent shelters from offering beds to homeless people and even have the local sheriff's substation discourage efforts to feed homeless people.

"They want to push that [homeless people] out," Burris said.

Community Editorial Board member and nonprofit consultant Anne Olin wondered aloud how you persuade Orange County cities to resist buying into our own mythology, especially when it is so closely tied to one of our major industries, tourism.

In essence, how do you stop cities from kicking homeless people back and forth between each other's streets?

"What's the fix?" Olin asked.

"We have to approach it from all fronts," Kight said.

He noted the OC Partnership is a way to assemble a regional approach to homelessness that encompasses a much more comprehensive set of strategies for keeping people off the streets.

Yet the biggest challenge is rallying popular support behind efforts to provide transitional housing for homeless people, a key component in helping people in trouble back to stable living situations.

That's one heck of a PR challenge, Burris said, especially when many faces of the homeless aren't pretty. Many are mentally ill while others just aren't nice people, like Megan's Law sexual predators or parolees.

Burris said the Rescue Mission is trying to change that perception, establishing a website featuring stories and videos about real people forced into a life on the streets as well as examples of progress.

"Putting a face on it is the first step," Burris said.

Staying focused on faces instead of numbers is also important.

"The solution needs to match the problem," said editorial board member Michael Ruane, who also is executive director of the County's Children and Families Commission. "The face of homelessness is not well understood, it's very broad," Ruane added, warning that county officials must be careful to avoid a numbers counting game.

Yet often a big challenge is that the face of homelessness isn't exactly an attractive one. Ruane noted that the second victim of the homeless serial killer was a Megan's Law registrant.

Several editorial board members also stressed that the private sector should be engaged in efforts to intelligently address homelessness. And there needs to be a greater focus on what government agencies are doing that inadvertently contributes to homelessness.

Editorial board members like Tefere Gebre of the Orange County Labor Federation asked, "How are we dealing with the core problems?" Budget cuts and a faltering economy are driving many working families onto the streets, he said.

Kight agreed, saying "it needs to be a bigger part of the discussion."

However, Kight noted, "it's a mistake to look to government, whether its city, county, state or federal, as a solution" Focusing only on what government agencies are doing "gives the community a bye for not getting involved, he said."

Editorial board member Julie Puentes of the Hospital Association of Southern California noted that private sector hospitals have been working on an innovative concept providing mobile clinics with nonprofits like the Ilumination Foundation.

Wanda Schaffer, an editorial board member who is a director of the League of Women Voters of North Orange County, also pointed out the work being done by projects like the Diamond Aisle Apartments in Anaheim, which provides low-cost housing to mentally disabled residents. Schaefer also lamented the loss of redevelopment agencies because there was hope for redevelopment collaborating with Prop. 63 funding for mental illness to fund such transitional housing projects.

Editorial board member Jose Moreno, who leads the Latino advocacy group Los Amigos, questioned the impact on homelessness from local government cooperation with the federal government's Secure Communities Initiative.

Heightened deportation of workers as well as car seizures at checkpoints increasingly push families losing breadwinners into homelessness, Moreno argued.

Burris also noted that local police agencies, like the Sheriff's Department and city departments, are often enforcing ordinances — like those preventing sleeping on benches — that trigger more costs on the law enforcement side of the ledger.

Editorial board member Dan McQuaid of the volunteer coordination agency One OC asked how Orange County officials expect to measure progress as they tackle something as complicated as homelessness.

"Are there specific goals?," asked McQuaid, adding that "being able to articulate solutions is going to be key." This kind of effort "needs a lot of short-term wins," he said.

Editorial board member Rusty Kennedy, who oversees Orange County's Human Relations Commission, also said the county needed to be ready for the wave of need that continues to build as a result of the economy and across-the-board budget cuts.

Yet Kight said the homelessness task force now is focused on measurement of the problem because "absent a framework, we'll find ourselves Balkanized."

This year, Kight said, is a year of measurement and figuring out the baseline. "We need a set of benchmarks," he said.

County leaders still don't have a good estimate of how many homeless people there are or how many beds and services are available across the county, he said.

County officials are meeting this week to begin that process, he said.



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