Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | Orange County has enacted an ambitious plan to end homelessness in just a decade.

But it’s taken four years just to get organized. And officials still haven’t even recruited an executive director to run the effort.

The county is required to come up with a plan to end homelessness or risk losing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds that totaled $111 million in the 13 years between 1996 and 2009.

Putting an end to homelessness, advocates argue, also has real implications for local budgets. It would mean substantial savings to taxpayers, by cutting expenses for jail stays, hospital admissions, paramedics, healthcare programs and other public services.

In general, the plan being discussed for Orange County includes creating year-round shelters and other housing that is affordable to those with low-paying jobs and making sure that programs that help the chronic homeless learn job and other skills, like personal money management, are available and run well.

In 2008, about the time the county started concentrating efforts on homelessness, the influential Funders Roundtable made ending homelessness one of its priorities.

The Roundtable, a group of 20 corporations and nonprofits that donate large sums to charity, includes Bank of America, Wells Fargo, the Weingart Foundation, the California Endowment, the Irvine Health Foundation and United Way among its members.

It’s 2010 study of homelessness in Orange County concluded, in part, that data collected on the homeless was a mixed-bag of differing research methods, varying definitions and “lack of comprehensive data systems.”

It’s not just the demographics that were found to be unreliable. No county agency keeps track of the number of food pantries and soup kitchens that serve not just the true homeless, but anyone in need. And trying to determine how many beds are available on any one given night for those who suddenly find themselves without shelter, is next to impossible.

Organizations that serve the homeless have individual criteria. So, some may take women who have passed drug tests while others will taken almost all women with children but not men or teenage boys.

Almost no one will take single men or male teens.

Even 2-1-1, an emergency number people can dial 24-hours-a-day for social service needs, doesn’t track services specifically for the homeless.

But the agency estimates there about 4,500 programs involving 1,800 agencies, if you counted every program for the homeless and others, including mental and physical health, job training, food, clothing and shelter.

Officials say Orange County’s new plan wants to gain a better understanding of what’s already being done in a systematic way.

Can Homelessness Really End?

According to a May, 2010 report by the Funders Roundtable, the U.S. “leads industrialized nations with the most homeless women and children, with one in five children experiencing homelessness throughout the United States each year.”

California, according to statistics cited in the same report, ranked 49 out of 50 in child homelessness with 292,624 homeless children or 3.08% of all children living in the state. Orange County’s statistics for homeless children were about the same as the state average.

While HUD under the Bush administration launched the current drive to cut homelessness, the Obama administration has expanded the goals.

Today, cities and counties throughout the nation are working on plans to provide enough housing for everyone in their communities.

Last summer, Worcester, Massachusetts, with a population of more than 182,000, announced it was on the verge of eliminating homelessness within its boundaries.

Salt Lake City, Denver and Portland, Oregon have announced major progress in reducing their homeless totals.

Orange County, with a population of more than three million, won’t know exactly how many are homeless until it gets a uniform system for collecting and reporting statistics. In 2009, the latest figures available, about 8,000 people were without shelter on any given day.

Homelessness is defined as sleeping in cars, parks, campground, sidewalks and other outdoor areas, as well as emergency shelters, transitional housing designed for the homeless and those staying with family and friends “due to economic hardship or loss of housing.”

People recently discharged from medical institutions and prisons with nowhere to live and those who have been evicted from their residence, also fall under the homeless definition.

The Obama administration has expanded efforts to end homelessness, arguing that stable housing gives adults a base for improving their lives and provides children security and a dependable home for attending school regularly and avoiding the life patterns of their parents.

The board of the Orange County project to end homelessness in 10 years is in the process of hiring an executive director and forming the committees that will be responsible for seeing that goals are met.

One of the problems the county has been trying to overcome is what the Funders Roundtable called a lack of “an effective leadership body to manage and guide the coordinated efforts that are needed to address the systemic issues facing the homeless population.

“As a result, there has been no strategic, coordinated voice within the County to raise awareness about the issues facing the homeless, encourage greater coordination among homeless service providers, and to lead the charge to address the necessary system changes,” it said.

The new Ten-Year Plan, officially adopted by the county board of supervisors last year is supposed to fix that.

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