A homeless man rests outside the Santa Ana Library. Credit: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

The Orange County Board of Supervisors this week received the long-anticipated Final Plan to End Homelessness, a document that homeless advocates applauded, despite describing it as long on generalities and short on specifics.

More than four years after the George W. Bush administration officially made ending homelessness a national priority, the local plan is simply “overarching goals and strategies,” said Kelly Lupro, manager of Homeless Prevention for the county’s Community Services Department.

For example, even though the plan’s conclusion states “Orange County has made a commitment to end homelessness over the course of the next decade,” the county isn’t putting money behind the effort, other than a one-time $75,000 contribution toward the salary of Steve Kight, the project’s first executive director.

Furthermore, the county will not try to count all of the homeless people within its borders and is backing away from its previously stated goal to end homelessness by 2020. The former Commission to End Homelessness by 2020 now is just the Commission to End Homelessness.

The county is required to devise a plan for ending homelessness or risk losing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds that for Orange county totaled $111 million between 1996 and 2009.

Paul Leon, director of the Illumination Foundation, one of the county’s most high-profile nonprofits dedicated to homelessness issues, said until very recently the county’s plan was “just talk.”

But starting last year, he said, he’s sensed “a little bit more momentum,” including efforts to cooperate with cities.

“If we [charities and government] could work together, I could see something happening in the next three to four years,” he said.

When asked about the plan submitted to the Board of Supervisors this week, Leon said there is “quite a bit of fluff in there.” But he said he’s encouraged that the county is considering potential sites for a year-round shelter.

“At least they’re doing something,” said Leon. “They’re trying to quantify the gravest needs. Yeah, it could have been done five years ago, but at least it’s happening.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach said part of the delay came from the time it took to recruit an executive director. He said there also were legal issues to settle before enabling the OC Partnership to spearhead the effort.

Since Kight, who heads the OC Partnership, was named executive director in August, they’ve “been working like crazy,” Moorlach said.

The commission recommended that year-round shelters be located at sites throughout the county and should include daytime services. To do that, Kight and the OC Partnership must win support of the communities where the shelters would be located and raise money to create them.

If the county creates year-round shelters, it also must provide services for individuals with mental health and addiction problems, the report said.

In order to supply those services, officials must know how many people need them. Getting an accurate count of homeless people is tough for any jurisdiction and, it seems, particularly tough for Orange County.

In January 2011, the county participated in the nationwide point-in-time count of homeless people. However, county officials took several months longer to release the information than their counterparts in other Southern California counties. And when officials did make the totals public, they were immediately challenged by local advocates.

The tally showed that even with the poor economy and high unemployment, Orange County homelessness dropped 16.73 percent between 2009 and 2011 to about 7,000. It was the largest decrease of any county in Southern California.

“It’s bullshit,” Dwight Smith, director of the Catholic Worker shelter in Santa Ana, said at the time.

Orange County tries to count all of its homeless only every two years, the minimum required by HUD. This year, HUD began requiring an annual, one-night count of men, women and children housed in shelters. Orange County will conduct that count Jan. 27.

But most homeless people don’t live in shelters. They sleep on the streets, in parks, in cars or anywhere they can find a reasonably safe space. Even if the 2011 count is accurate, shelters reported caring for less than 40 percent of the total homeless people in Orange County. The rest presumably were on the street.

This week, other California counties, including San Diego and Ventura, are again doing their own street count. But Orange County is not.

When asked the reason, Moorlach said, “Just because Johnnie does it …”

Lupro said the county is moving toward an annual street count.

This year’s partial count comes when homelessness and one of its major causes, mental illness, have been in the spotlight for months.

Kelly Thomas, a homeless man suffering from severe schizophrenia, was beaten to death July 5 by Fullerton police officers. One officer involved in the beating is facing murder charges and another manslaughter charges.

This month, Iraq War veteran Itzcoatl “Izzy” Ocampo, 23, of Yorba Linda, was arrested on suspicion that he is the serial killer who stabbed to death four homeless men in North Orange County. Ocampo, whose father is homeless, reportedly suffers from psychological problems.

Brian Sullivan, spokesman for HUD, said learning how many people live on the streets and the reasons is critical to ending homelessness. Without knowing how many people lack a permanent place to live and what kinds of aid are needed, it’s impossible to marshal the right resources in a financially sensible way, he said.

Reducing homelessness and correcting its causes, he said, saves local, state and federal funds that are spent for emergency room care, jails, prisons and other services.

“You can’t solve homelessness without understanding it,” said Sullivan.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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