The homeless encampment at Orange County’s Civic Center has grown to hundreds of people over the past few years, including some families with young children.
But the county government, which oversees more than $100 million per year in mental health funding, still hasn’t assigned a full-time social worker to the area to help connect people with services.
That’s apparently about to change.
County supervisors Todd Spitzer and Shawn Nelson on Tuesday confronted top heath officials about the situation, saying the county really needs to step up its efforts and getting staff to commit to changes.
“Why aren’t we pulling up a van every single day and deploying services every single day?” asked Spitzer, who said there should be a “continuum of care” available to the Civic Center population.
That would include a triage area where homeless people can get set up with drug counseling, mental health treatment and housing and welfare-to-work services, he said.
The supervisors' orders followed a column earlier on Tuesday by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr. that condemned the deplorable conditions at the Civic Center and criticized supervisors for doing little to alleviate the suffering.
Spitzer went on to point out that with all the surgeons and doctors at county jails, “we spend more money on people who are violating society than we do on people that are just trying to make it back from a really, really tough time.”
At Nelson’s urging, staff also agreed to assign a full-time social worker to the area at least on weekdays, and possibly someone on weekends as well.
“We don’t have to expend a lot of resources to at least” make sure someone is there making contact, said Nelson. “The effort is very difficult to feel right now.”
The tone marked a sharp change from supervisors’ previous attitude towards the Civic Center population. The county’s Health Care Agency director, Mark Refowitz, said that in the past staff were told to not bring more people to Civic Center and not to draw attention to the area.
The county’s behavioral health director, Mary Hale, added that staff had considered putting up a table in the Civic Center, but “don’t want to draw attention, or have not thought it was…your desire to draw that attention.”
The discussion prompted some dramatic back and forth as Spitzer and Nelson rebutted staff’s responses to their concerns.
Things began to grow tense when Hale responded to Nelson's complaint about a lack of outreach at the Civic Center. Hale asserted that there already is a county staffer assigned to do outreach there part-time.
Nelson replied that Hale's assertion doesn’t jibe with his experience, and ended up sending out an aide – during the discussion – to ask homeless people if the county worker had spoken with them.
“The majority of people have no idea what he’s talking about,” Nelson said after his aide reported back on his interactions. “Are you surprised with the result that I got? ‘Cause I’m not.”
Hale said she was “only a little” surprised, given that the county employees might not be making it clear they work for the county.
“They try to blend in” and look mentally ill, Hale said of the county staff. “There’s also the possibility that the staff that are there aren't identifying themselves.”
Nelson then urged her to ensure there’s “just one person minimum every day. That is obvious. Not an undercover.”
They should be there “all day every day, [with a] visor and sunscreen, working with the people,” he added.
Spitzer, meanwhile, expressed frustration at Hale’s focus on statistics about the homeless population, rather than offering a plan of action.
“Who cares?” he said of the percentages between people with mental illness versus substance abuse issues. “They all need services.”
Spitzer said there should be continuum of services, including drug and mental health treatment, as well as opportunities for eligible homeless people to sign up for health care through Medi-Cal and the welfare-to-work program CalWorks.
When it comes to mental health services, there’s a massive amount of money available to the county.
Orange County is slated to receive $119 million this year in state dollars for mental health services, through the Mental Health Services Act, and use another $21 million in leftover funds for mental health programs.
And the county is projecting at least $8 million in extra funding for mental health programs over the next five years.
But the current pace of planning that spending frustrated Spitzer.
When Hale noted that a comprehensive assessment for mental health programs was being developed to guide decisions in fiscal year 2018, Spitzer got upset yet again.
“We can’t spent this many hundreds of millions” and billions of dollars in this country “and not know what we need to do. I do not need another study in another cycle to push the problem off another year to tell me we have a serious problem,” he said.
“It’s the humanitarian side of public policy,” Spitzer added. “We’ve got to do something, man, and we’ve got to start somewhere, and we’ve got to start chipping away.”