Wisdom From Years of Fighting Homelessness

Allan Roeder in his office in Garden Grove.

Allan Roeder in his office in Garden Grove.

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Few city officials in Orange County have dealt with the problem of homelessness from as many vantage points as Allan Roeder.

Currently the interim city manager of Garden Grove, Roeder served more than 30 years as Costa Mesa’s city manager. Before retiring from Costa Mesa in 2011, he was appointed to the county’s Commission to End Homelessness and has since stayed involved in county efforts centered around homelessness in a volunteer capacity.

He also currently serves on the board of 2-1-1 OC, an organization that focuses on referring vulnerable populations to supportive services.

Roeder sat down with Voice of OC recently to talk about his views on the county’s efforts to address homelessness, and what government leaders need to be doing to move forward on the issue. His responses were edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about how you first became passionate about this issue. 

It was six or seven years ago, myself and Bob Dunek from the city of Lake Forest were asked to serve on the initial county Commission to End Homelessness. I served for about three years prior to my retirement from Costa Mesa. It was a growing concern in Costa Mesa and throughout the county. Subsequent to retiring, the county managers association allowed me to continue to serve on the commission, and I’ve continued in that capacity until last November.

In the meantime, I joined the board of 211 OC. And have been involved in that end of things, and am currently serving from the chair of that board. So it’s been something I’ve developed a real interest in for some time, and can stay involved in as a volunteer as opposed to in some official capacity.

Many cities have ordinances targeted at policing the homeless through fines and citations for having their belongings in public places, which advocates say criminalize homelessness. In Newport Beach, for example, there’s an ordinance banning napping and foul-odored people from public libraries. What do you think of these approaches?

I’ll tell you my philosophy about this in general — there is this propensity for all of us in government to defer problems to law enforcement because of our failure to develop policies and solutions…that’s been a disservice to law enforcement in my personal judgment. When you say, “well it’s a law enforcement problem,” it feeds the notion that all homeless are drug users and alcoholics with mental issues. That’s a mis-assessment of the population as a whole. Not to say there aren’t many who show one or a combination of those factors – but it’s a mistake to say thats the whole homeless population.

And law enforcement, despite advances in their training, aren’t ideally trained to deal with homelessness. We don’t have treatment facilities or facilities to take them to, when the homeless come in contact with law enforcement. Ultimately, it solves nothing.

What cities are doing a good, or better, job of responding to their homeless population?

Anaheim is doing good work in the last year or two — particular with encampments in La Palma Park. They engaged the nonprofit community and other agencies to work with the police department, and took it on as a case management effort in terms of developing relationships with individuals and doing assessment…and really taking a personal investment in each individual and following through to make sure they’re placed in appropriate facilities with resources. As opposed to adopting a regulation and banning camping in the park…which just assures they’ll be redistributed elsewhere. They’ve had some pretty good success in that.

The city of Laguna Beach has worked with the Friendship Shelter – a private nonprofit shelter…on Laguna Canyon Road that takes homeless individuals during evening hours and does basic work with them and provides a safe place for people to stay short-term.

So you see scattered efforts around the county, but they’re all a little bit different, and there’s no coordinated effort between and among cities. And that’s a real part of the problem. Not to say everyone is standing around, but there’s a sense at the local level that it’s the county responsibility. And yet, the cities are where the homeless live…The cities and the county have to get together on this, that’s an absolute issue.

So as someone who has been in city government, as a city manager, serving on the county commission, and as a volunteer on the ground, you’ve been on a lot of sides of the issue. I’m wondering what you think the responsibility of government is to intervene in homelessness, versus private charities and nonprofit groups?

No doubt we have competing interests [and] competing philosophies on what are the best solutions. My own professional opinion is government is best served by being part of the solution, not as being the leader [of it]. Because whenever government in this setting takes control and the lead, it tends to push out innovation and many from the nonprofit community and faith-based groups that may have a different philosophy or even a distrust of government.

The County of Orange receives an excess of $16 million a year in federal funding for homeless services. Obviously they’ve been part of the solution. But it’s not right of the rest of us — local government or the nonprofit community — to stand around and wait for the county to tell us what to do next. Or fashion all of our efforts around trying to get a stake in that 16 million. It’s an issue from a leadership standpoint that has been real difficult […] And when you have term limited elected officials, it’s hard to maintain continuity of leadership over time to really effect change.

Addressing homelessness is not high on the priorities for the public, like transportation, or public safety, or education. It’s not people that aren’t interested, it’s just way down on the priority list. And there’s a lack of defined responsibility under the law, in terms of what level of government is responsible to address homelessness. It’s defined more by funding than anything statutorily.

What do you think about language of “ending homelessness” — is that even a feasible goal?

I personally believe that unless you set a real definitive objective like that, then you’re guaranteed to come up way short. I’d rather us overreach than to set too low a goal. The flip side of that, well if you think the ten year plan is too aggressive, then someone explain to me what level of homelessness you’re okay with — is it twenty percent? Fifty percent? If you look at the wealth of this county and the resources — not just monetarily — but the numbers of nonprofit groups and terrific faith-based groups, the strength of this county as a whole — we ought to do a better job for the estimated 12,000 in this county who are homeless.

It’s really a problem of leadership. It’s not commonly known, but when Supervisor Moorlach served on the Board of Supervisors, I thought he did a really good job [as chairman of the commission]… although we certainly didn’t end homelessness, it did provide an elected, political focal point. Leadership doesn’t have to come from the Board of Supervisors — it could come from any number of sources, from the private sector, the nonprofit sector, we shouldn’t always defer to elected officials as some of the ones who can provide leadership.

There’s something I’d like to see, which would be to get all 34 cities in the county to acknowledge that the county does have a homeless population. Some communities still say, oh we don’t have any homeless. Acknowledge the homeless population and be willing to work together.

The county has been struggling for years to find a location and wherewithal to build a year-round homeless shelter. There’s some disagreement among advocates about what the best solution is — whether it’s a 200-bed shelter or smaller, community-based shelters. What’s the best strategy?

With the limitations we have with the two armories, we’ve been focused on building two large, two hundred-bed shelters. With the failure of the proposed shelter on State College Boulevard in Fullerton, and the subsequent failure in Santa Ana, there have been many that have said, the problem is we’ll never get any community that’s going to be comfortable with a two hundred bed shelter, so we ought to look at multiple, 50-bed shelters.

I’m not convinced that’s necessarily the solution. It hasn’t been field tested. I’m not sure communities will feel any better about fifty as opposed to two hundred. Cost efficiency goes way down for smaller shelters. I do think there’s going to be continued need for a couple of larger shelters. Those are doable. I happen to believe we can locate a couple of shelters in the county.

Something else that I think is really important, and this bothered me a lot when we were working with cities [on zoning for homeless shelters]. Cities, in going through that process in adopting the zoning, made it extremely restrictive. Most cities, in fact, will not allow a shelter for more than ten people. And they required additional onsite parking, and other requirements, that effectively means they’ll never have a shelter in their city.

Whether that was the intent in the drafting or not, that’s kind of the natural outgrowth of it. But in particular, the provision that I felt was most unfortunate, most of the emergency shelters include restrictions on hours of operation. Shelters are allowed to be operated between 6 pm until 6 or 7 am. What that means is people congregate, waiting for the shelter to open. People are allowed in, screened, and able to get a night’s rest. Then we get everyone up and push them back out into the street…It seems like a totally counterproductive effort to be moving people out of shelters during the hours of the day, when you could really get in and work with them, diagnose underlying issues, and refer them to treatment.

What’s the situation with homelessness in Garden Grove and what do you think of the city’s response?

I’m certainly not a city spokesman per se – but coming from very different communities, like Costa mesa and with neighboring Newport Beach, which are more affluent…I find that there’s a lot of similarities in terms of resident interest – faith and nonprofit organizations, in terms of having a thirst and desire to address the issue. I’ve not experienced anyone in Garden Grove say “make it go away.” People want to step up and address [homelessness].

The law enforcement here does a very good job with their interaction with the homeless. Even if they are not skilled with the addressing mental health issues, they’re very well-trained and attuned to the signs of mental illness. I’ve been on the whole pleased with what Elgin and his personnel do.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo. 

  • Philmore

    “The County of Orange receives an (sic) excess of $16 million a year in federal funding for homeless services. Obviously they’ve been part of the
    solution.”
    NO, I DON’T think that’s OBVIOUS. From the HUD Annual Homeless Assessment Report 2014 (Thanks, Google!) reported 113,952 STATEWIDE Homeless, 71,437 UN sheltered, 3,833 in the Anaheim Santa Ana OC Area. That is a ONE DAY snapshot, not seasonally adjusted, but ALSO says NOTHING about the State and City funding, OR nonprofit / faith based contributions. With the transient / chronic split also unknown, it STILL begs the question – HOW MUCH of $16M+, serves the homeless, daily, per capita, etc, vs the “homeless industry” and government “administration” ?? The bill-footing public NEEDS toKNOW that, for context of requested FURTHER expense. While Anaheim and Fullerton are pegged at $500K each for the new shelter, NARY A WORD (Estimate, even!) about the County’s tab OR ABOUT OPERATING EXPENSE. The grandstanding pols SPEND the money, the BILL comes to US! Since WHEN was a BLANK CHECK okay?

    • David Zenger

      “HOW MUCH of $16M+, serves the homeless, daily, per capita, etc, vs the “homeless industry” and government “administration” ??”

      A good question. That $16 million is going somplace.

      Don’t you love how Roeder conflates (confuses?) funding with solution?

      Maybe next time Thy Vo will go interview a an actual homeless person instead of a self-congratulatory career bureaucrat. The interview would be a million times more informative – especially for those who make their living solutioning the homeless problem.

  • David Zenger

    When I started reading this article, I knew by the end Roeder would argue against a smaller, more agile approach as being “untested.” So why is that approach untested after all these years, Mr. Roeder? Why is the nuclear option your only solution?

    “The County of Orange receives an (sic) excess of $16 million a year in federal funding for homeless services. Obviously they’ve been part of the
    solution.”

    Obvious to whom?

    As to Anaheim, Mr. Roeder please pay a visit to the Vanishing Homeless Memorial Dog Park in La Palma Park. The homeless that were removed did not just evaporate into the ether.

    P.S. Moorlach accomplished absolutely nothing to end homelessness in Orange County.

    • Trudy White

      Moorlach’s failure was more than that. In fact, I am hard pressed to find a single achievement of Johnny No Tell.

      • David Zenger

        If he had been a little less infatuated with his very ordinary ability, less protective of the upper management when they screwed up, and less enamored with the fiction of “the County Family” he might have achieved something.

        • Trudy White

          I totally agree. What a waste.

        • Trudy White

          Moorlach always was a cranky old fussbudget. He got worse around the holidays, when he was reminded that HE was NOT God’s greatest gift to the universe.