Westminster Pushes Boundaries in Fight Against Homelessness

A shopping center in Westminster on the corner of Magnolia Street and Bolsa Ave. Beggars, the homeless and people selling vegetables and home made wares often congregate here.

Julie Leopo/Voice of OC

A shopping center in Westminster on the corner of Magnolia Street and Bolsa Ave. Beggars, the homeless and people selling vegetables and home made wares often congregate here.

Print More

Every city has its homeless, and Westminster is no different.

A man living by the Stater Bros. supermarket can’t go to his mother’s home, where his Social Security money is delivered, because of hostile living conditions.

A veteran receiving no benefits has been homeless for at least three weeks, and is unable to work because of his narcotics use.

A woman is living out of her car at Sigler Park with a nine month old baby and a dog.

Such stories are neither rare nor easy to solve, even in a city of only 92,000.

According to a city staff report, at least 1,722 homeless children, mostly motel families, live within the Westminster School District. City staff estimate there are at least 50 chronically homeless individuals in addition to newly homeless or at-risk families and individuals who they say are drawn to the city because of services at the West Justice Center next to City Hall.

In their effort to alleviate this situation, officials have scraped together funds for a five-year, rapid rehousing pilot program targeted at residents who are chronically homeless or at risk of losing their home.

The $250,000 per year program pays for half the salary of a police officer dedicated to homeless prevention as well as rent subsidies, housing vouchers, temporary motel stays, and assistance with apartment deposits, said Tami Piscotty, the city’s housing coordinator.

Since January, 33 families or individuals have been assisted, Piscotty said, while police and other city staff have reached out to many other homeless and at-risk families about their circumstances.

Families behind on rent because of disability and illness have received rental assistance; a woman and her pitbull, who were living in a public park, have been relocated to Oregon to live with family; a woman living behind the Wal-Mart with her one-year old is receiving baby formula and a motel stay while staff find more permanent options.

The Police Department also uses money raised from its unclaimed asset forfeiture program to pay for a contract with the Coast to Coast Foundation, which works with police departments to respond to calls to assist the homeless when officers don’t have the time.

Stretching Scarce Resources

Funding for the pilot program has been a rare boon for a city that has suffered financially since Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision in 2011 to eliminate local redevelopment agencies, a crushing blow to the Westminster’s budget, which depended heavily on redevelopment.

Since the state initially seized redevelopment monies, some of those funds have since been recovered. Of the $14.3 million affordable housing funds returned to Westminster, state law allows $250,000 a year to go toward homeless prevention and rapid rehousing efforts.

While many cities use federal Emergency Shelter Grant funds to provide rental subsidies, Westminster isn’t eligible to receive the funds because its population is too small.

The redevelopment funds, Piscotty says, have opened up a new opportunity for housing assistance where the city previously did not have the funds to do.

When funding runs out in five years, at least Westminster will be able to use their experiences from the program to apply for competitive federal grants to continue homeless outreach. Other cities with neither funding nor experience may simply continue to go without, Piscotty said.

Communication Gap

While city officials and homeless advocates applaud the efforts in Westminster and other other smaller cities, they say a lack of leadership at the county level hinders further progress.

“It feels like there could be more communication between cities and the county and better collaboration,” said Westminster Deputy Chief Dan Schoonmaker. “We have programs here that other cities don’t have, that are good for us and work for us, but if everybody worked in concert, we might have quicker results.”

Homelessness is a regional issue, said Allan Roeder, chair of 2-1-1 OC, a nonprofit that refers residents to health and housing resources, and a former city manager of Costa Mesa.

While local law enforcement have been proactive about collaborating on homelessness issues, he said, cities do not spend enough time talking to each other.

“When you talked about the homeless in terms of clientele, it doesn’t really work by city boundaries. So it really is, in the best interests of the homeless, for us to work together on that,” Roeder said. “But it really has been almost a hit and miss if you were looking at all 34 cities; there’s no real, consistent approach or theme or focus.”

In Stanton, which has a population of less than 40,000, city officials donated property in 2013 to the Illumination Foundation in order to run a multi-service center for the homeless.

Paul Leon, president of the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at ending homelessness through permanent housing and supportive services, said Stanton’s  initial donation has helped the organization secure a key foothold in the community.

“They’ve done such a good job of connecting the Police Department. We have weekly and monthly meetings. Our case managers are working with their sheriffs. They’ve come to the table. They donated a multi service center for us to work in — and those kinds of efforts are real, solid efforts,” Leon said.

The Foundation is “self-sufficient” and pays rent back to the city, Leon said. “They actually make money from us — it’s a good partnership. We have federal vouchers to pay rent back to the property they gave us.”

But, echoing Roeder, Leon said the lack of leadership countywide has meant that while some cities have been on the right track, others have not, or are just starting to, address homelessness.

“If the county really wants to make an impact we need to work together and try to get more federal money,” Leon said.

“There’s so many good models to follow; Utah, Virginia, it’s not like cancer, we know the solution, we know what needs to be done, now all we need is the political will.”

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