County Officials Tout Efforts for Homeless, But Funding Still a Question

A homeless woman at the Orange County Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

A homeless woman at the Orange County Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

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Orange County supervisors got a frank assessment Tuesday on the state of the county’s homeless care system from their new homeless czar, who noted progress on several fronts but also pointed to major gaps that remain.

During a special study session on homelessness, Susan Price, who was hired in May as the county’s first director of homeless care coordination, presented the main findings from a report she just issued.

Among the positives highlighted by Price is the shelter and service center the county opened this month at the abandoned bus terminal near the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center. She also talked about how Mental health nurses are now accompanying police who interact with homeless people in some cities. 

But, Price said, much work remains to fix a fragmented and uncoordinated system that’s lacking in essential services that would help lives and at the same time likely reduce costs to the public.

Among the challenges she outlined: A data system that doesn’t show service providers where available shelter beds are in real-time; a lack of services to treat mental and physical health issues before they lead to expensive hospital visits; and few resources for single men and women, who make up the the vast majority of people on the streets.

The biggest resource the county lacks is also the most obvious: affordable housing to help get people off the streets.

While 3,058 single men and women were homeless during last year’s point-in-time count, there are just 1,624 rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing beds for them, Price said.

“Is it enough? No,” she said, emphasizing that an effective homeless care system helps people get on a “pathway to housing.”

Price sees opportunities in renovating existing housing, like a project in Santa Ana to convert a motel into housing for homeless people, as well as creating small homes, like the Potters Lane project in Midway City, which recently converted shipping containers into homes for homeless veterans.

Supervisors on Tuesday said they were committed to improving the homeless services system, and acknowledged the need for affordable housing.

“This is just the beginning,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, who called for the special session. “I believe Orange County will be on the forefront of something very revolutionary” when Price’s recommendations are implemented on housing, mental health and criminal justice reform.

However, Do and his colleagues showed no interest Tuesday in figuring out how to fund a significant expansion of affordable housing. In fact, there was only criticism from the dais regarding a funding request made last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU).

A recent report by the ACLU estimates that it would take $13 million a year to permanently house the chronically homeless population, and a total of $55 million a year to house the entire homeless population.

ACLU representatives showed up to the supervisors’ regular meeting last week and urged them to dedicate part of the county’s $744 million in annual discretionary funds to such an effort. They said an investment, if managed properly, would ultimately get people off the streets and save money for taxpayers by reducing emergency room visits and other public costs of homelessness.

But supervisors offered no response last week, and on Tuesday, Supervisor Shawn Nelson called the request unrealistic.

“Orange County gets less [return on property tax money] than any county of [all] 58 counties in the state,” Nelson said.

He is referring to data that show the state funneling just 6 percent of property taxes paid by Orange County residents back to the county government, the lowest rate of any county statewide. In comparison, Los Angeles County gets back 20 percent, according to the data from the state Board of Equalization.

But what Nelson didn’t say is that the portion of the county’s budget controlled by supervisors has grown significantly in recent years, and they have chosen to direct much of the increase toward law enforcement.

Since 2010, discretionary spending has grown by $78 million, according to county budget documents. During this period, supervisors have added $20 million in discretionary funding to the sheriff’s department, while reducing discretionary funding for health and social services by $33 million, budget documents show.

“This system is severely underfunded. And without county commitment to filling that [housing] gap, I just don’t see how the rest of these components are going to provide a pathway out of homelessness,” said Eve Garrow, a homeless policy advocate with the ACLU who authored their recent report.

“You can coordinate services. You can make other services easier for people to access. But without housing to link people to, they’ll still be homeless.”

In response to Price’s presentation, supervisors did show an interest in improving certain services to homeless people.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said it was difficult for homeless people to sign up for food stamps and welfare benefits, and sought ways to streamline the process.

“This form is beyond complicated – I couldn’t fill this darned thing out on my own,” Spitzer said, holding up the benefits sign-up form. He said it asks for a birth certificate, proof of where the applicant lives, social security info, income statements, and immigration certification.

“I was phenomenally blown away [by] what you have to prove” to get benefits, he said. “I didn’t know, and shame on me.”

At Spitzer’s urging, Price and social services officials said they’d try to get other agencies, like the DMV, to visit the shelter once or twice a month during benefit sign-ups so it’s a “one stop shop” for homeless people to get the documents they need to sign up for benefits.

Price made a series of recommendations to supervisors, including re-structuring the homeless care system’s governance, working more closely with cities, diversifying resources for homeless people, implementing a restaurant meals program, improving the homeless management software, and creating more affordable housing development.

(Click here to read Price’s report, “An Assessment of Homeless Services in Orange County.”)

She also emphasized that the opening of the shelter and service center in the bus terminal was an important step.

“I really can’t say enough about what it’s been like” to talk to people there, Price said.“They’re very excited to be given an opportunity, and really a sigh of relief.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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  • LFOldTimer

    Since Do is the only supe up for reelection he is the only one who bothers with sleep-overs at the bus depot homeless shelter.

    You won’t see the others sleeping with the homeless until next election season. Even Bartlett will sleep on the ground with the underclass and risk getting ants in her hair. Whatever it takes to get votes.

    Heck, Do even volunteered to be the moderator at the Homeless Town Hall! ha. Reality is stranger than fiction.

    Let’s call for all 5 supes do a group sleep-over at the bus depot homeless shelter on the same night. ha.

    I have a better chance at getting my dog to go “meow” than for a BoS group sleep-over at the bus depot.

    • Jacki Livingston

      I remember when SSA invited them to the CRO office, in Santa Ana, which is the one that deals mostly with homeless. They declined, because they couldn’t deal with the smell of the great unwashed masses. The homeless don’t vote. They don’t donate to campaigns and they don’t provide them with a cash cow like nursing homes run by organized crime members. In short, they won’t do anything. I will be married to Gerard Butler, living in a ten million dollar mansion, before that happens.

  • Jacki Livingston

    Spitzer, you are such a lying dog. That form is not the only way, and workers in the county help make it happen for clients who lack the ability, and the documents. Your directive to us, two years ago, was to ignore fraud, and just give the benefits to whoever asked for it. You didn’t care about the taxpayers, only in the increase on the rolls so that the county could get more federal money. God, but you are so sleazy, now pretending. You have never replied to invitations from workers to come and see the process of what they do. In fact, I wrote you eight letters over the years, telling you of corruption and fraud, as well as organized crime, and I had proof, and you never replied. You are such a sleaze, you make Donald Trump look like a choirboy.

    • LFOldTimer

      My mind doesn’t want to believe that government officials would have such disrespect and contempt for the taxpayers who fund all the government operations and pay their fat compensations. My mind doesn’t want to believe it.

      But my heart says otherwise. My heart believes your story.

      Why?

      Histories and track records.

      Past performance is the best predictor of present and future performance.

      And county government is notorious for cover-ups.

      • Jacki Livingston

        I loved my job. Now I cannot get hired anywhere because they are blackballing me.

        If I cannot find work soon, I will live on the welfare I used to help others obtain.

        Is that justice?

        • LFOldTimer

          Other former county employees post on this site too.

          The stories and inside information are chilling.

          No wonder few active employees speak up.

          Who would call the whistle blower hotline and risk a career meltdown?

          People have bills to pay and families to feed.

          • No one will care

            LFOldTimer your comment is so true. I worked for the County for 30 years and did a great job….I cared about my staff and my responsibilies. 95% of working staff, which includes Manager’s, are committed. But unfortunately the 5% narcissistic personalities within the County become deputies and executives. We all have chilling stories on those 5% countywide, don’t we?

          • Jacki Livingston

            I used to say that, but let’s get real and call cowardice out for what it is. I am not that special. Right is right and wrong is wrong. No paycheck is worth your soul.

      • Jacki Livingston

        And county voters are notoriously stupid. They do nothing. Until they punish these officials, nothing will change. Voters in the OC whine, but they deserve what they have.