While there are many organizations in Orange County that provide services to homeless people, one towers above all others when it comes to getting county contracts to operate emergency housing.
That organization is Mercy House, a nonprofit that runs both of the county's seasonal homeless shelters in Santa Ana and Fullerton and is expected by many to be tapped to run the county’s first year-round emergency shelter when it opens in Anaheim.
Since 2009, Mercy House has been awarded $36 million in county contracts to not only run the armory shelters, but also for homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, and renovating properties for permanent affordable housing. The contracts are nearly all funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and managed by the county.
But while Mercy House has for years been the go-to provider for county and city officials, the organization and its executive director, Larry Haynes, have not been as well received by many who operate at the street level.
Several key homeless advocates and providers who work in the trenches describe Haynes and Mercy House as difficult to work with on many levels. They say, for example, homeless people are sometimes not treated with courtesy and respect at the check-in center that Mercy House operates.
And, some providers and advocates say, while Mercy House has continued to get city and county government contracts, many of the promised services don’t materialize.
“They can’t do the job but they get the project anyway. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Larry Smith, a leading homeless advocate in the Civic Center who goes by the name “Smitty,” referring to a recent contract for El Niño emergency beds.
For his part, Haynes acknowledges he's made mistakes in some community relationships and acted in a heavy-handed way. But he also emphasizes that Mercy House programs have had major successes, including the placement of thousands of people in permanent housing, with well over 900 people expected to be placed this fiscal year.
And he says one of the main reasons why Mercy House gets the lion's share of these contracts is that other organizations haven’t been willing to step up to the plate.
“We’re gonna do incredible work. [And] 90 some-odd percent of the time we get it right,” Haynes said during a wide-ranging interview last week. “If you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and all you can do is hear it, feel it, and act on it…And I’m gonna do the best I can.”
Broken Trust With Advocates
Advocates say they've lost trust in Mercy House, complaining that Haynes has rebuffed efforts to dialogue about how to improve services and incorporate good ideas.
That frustration has been expressed by members of the self-organized homeless advocacy group Civic Center Roundtable, like Smitty, as well as service providers like Dwight Smith of Isaiah House.
“I would say that his outreach to the homeless is uninspired, off-putting and not at all helpful,” said Smith, who has served the Civic Center homeless for over 20 years.
When asked about the breakdown in trust, Haynes took full responsibility, particularly for the fraying of relations in the Civic Center.
“That is fair. I want to acknowledge it. I want to publicly apologize for it, and it is unacceptable to me…the entirety of that mistake is on me,” Haynes said. “It is rooted in my arrogance…it is rooted in my not stopping and being more decent sometimes. And I am sorry. I know better.”
The irony of it, Haynes added, is that it stands in “stark contrast” to Mercy House’s history, which includes being the first provider in the county to have homeless clients define project goals instead of staff being in charge.
And, he said, the “overwhelming majority of the response” from people we serve “is deep appreciation and support.”
That being said, “there’s been a lot of soul searching,” Haynes acknowledged.
When it comes to relationships in the Civic Center, Haynes said he has staff who are doing more outreach, like attending Civic Center Roundtable meetings and helping people get placed into housing.
Perception of Unmet Promises
Advocates have also been frustrated by the lack of progress in establishing a long-promised Santa Ana check-in center for homeless people’s belongings, despite the city approving $200,000 for Mercy House to operate it more than a year ago.
They also point to Mercy House's role as the service provider for promises county leaders made regarding 440 extra emergency beds for homeless people during this winter's El Niño rains. In December, after months of warnings about threats the rains presented, the county outsourced the service to Mercy House. But the beds hadn’t materialized when the first storm came in early January.
Adding to the frustration in the aftermath of the storm, Smitty said, was that a Mercy House program director “actually admitted Mercy House cannot supply the  beds” promised by the county.
Haynes acknowledged the perception problem, but said he and his staff did the very best they could within the tight time constraints they faced.
Mercy House applied to provide 200 of the beds, he said, but wasn’t told it received the county contract until around Christmas, just a few days before the first storm hit on Jan. 6. And the official contract wasn’t signed by the county until Jan. 27.
“You’ve got to find these locations, you need to get approval…It’s just really difficult” in that short of a timeframe, Haynes said.
Plus, Haynes said he knew from the outset that the timing of the contract would make it extremely difficult to find bed locations and get city approvals for pick-up locations. So he reached out to other providers to join in and collaborate on finding space. But, Haynes said, he was left standing alone.
“I personally asked all of my colleagues” if they’d help on this, to split the beds, Haynes said. “Everyone said no. Everyone. So as it turns out, we were the only respondent.”
What remains to be answered is why county staff, particularly Community Resources Director Karen Roper, set up a process where the beds contract wouldn’t be signed until late January, when they knew in October about the threats the winter storms presented to the lives of homeless people in the Santa Ana riverbed and elsewhere.
Roper hasn't responded repeated interview requests through county spokeswoman Jean Pasco to discuss what happened.
Asked about the timing, Pasco said staff acted as soon as they brought a bidding process to supervisors on Dec. 8 and got approval. “When [supervisors] provided the direction the [request for bids] was issued” that same day, she said.
For the Santa Ana check-in center, Haynes said the hang-up has been in finding a workable location, something the city is responsible for.
“There was a real difficulty in locating a site,” he said.
He did, however, reiterate that he made mistakes in building his relationships with Civic Center homeless leaders at the beginning of the process, and apologized. “I admit there is something about my personality that is toxic there.”
More recently, Haynes said he and his staff have “absolutely” been doing the best they can. The plan going forward is to set up a mobile check-in center using a modified vehicle, which Haynes said he thinks would be up and running in March.
Concerns About a Lack of Respect
While a similar check-in center in Anaheim has been up and running for a couple of years, there have been complaints about some Mercy House representatives treating homeless people with a lack of respect.
At the Anaheim center, homeless people’s belongings were stored in trash cans, according to Ian Daelucian of the non-profit Heart of Delight, who cited that last year in urging Santa Ana officials to question whether their check-in center will respect people’s humanity.
“When we provide a service, let’s put ourselves in that position of being the service recipient,” Delucian said.
And at the same Mercy House-run check-in center, signs issued stern warnings about bringing pets in and suggested the center was on the verge of being shut down if people didn’t help keep it clean.
One sign reads in big bold letters at the top: “NO ANIMALS ALLOWED IN THE YARD,” followed by: “ The owner of any animal seen in the yard will receive a warning that counts toward the 3 Warnings and Out for 30 Days Rule.”
Another says in big letters: “THIS CHECK-IN-CENTER IS AT HIGH RISK OF BEING SHUT DOWN.”
That’s followed by: “If you use services here, please do your part to help maintain the area surrounding the yard. Please help keep the Port-o-Potties clean, as well as the alleyway/sidewalk. Lack of cooperation may lead to the closure of this facility and the services provided here.”
Asked about the signs, an advocate with the ACLU of Southern California said research shows that coercive requirements and threats degrade the quality and effectiveness of services.
“The worker-client relationship deteriorates, and clients engage in flight behavior (i.e., they avoid service providers),” ACLU homelessness analyst Eve Garrow said of the studies. “The core of effective and successful service provision is the trust between providers and clients, which is fostered by respectful and collaborative relations and is undermined by threats and coercion.”
Haynes said he wasn’t aware of the signs until a Voice of OC reporter asked about them on Saturday.
“The wording could probably have been [phrased] a little more diplomatically,” Haynes said after a reporter read the wording on the sign to him. But, he added, the underlying reasons for the signs were valid.
“Regarding the pets, we have had to place stricter controls for health and safety considerations, as people were not cleaning up after themselves," Haynes said. "We tried several, softer approaches, and unfortunately were left having to be more strict than frankly we wanted, or want to be.”
As for the bathrooms, Haynes said “they were being abused to an extent that required a stricter response and communication style than is our norm or preference. But, we needed to get control of the situation or risk losing the resource.”
Regarding the storage containers, Haynes said the intent was not to be inhumane or disrespectful, with the contains being chosen after touring and researching other providers who use those bins.
“In no way was there any indication that use of these containers was at all perceived as inhumane or disrespectful” in the research, Haynes said.
He also said there’s a practical reason for the containers to have wheels and lids, and that they’re “purchased new and have never been used for trash. We simply would not do otherwise.”
A Close Relationship With the County
Another issue that frequently comes up is how county’s emergency housing contracts seem to always go to Mercy House, with advocates noting a close working relationship between Haynes and county officials like Roper.
Mercy House has been the county’s sole armory shelters contractor since 2008, and was the only group to bid for the contract in 2011, with the county exercising built-in renewal options that expired last summer. The contract was then extended for this fiscal year without a re-bidding.
“It just can’t be every time you send out an [request for proposals], one person” applies, said Smitty. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Asked about the perception of Mercy House being the sole provider on the contracts, Pasco, the county spokeswoman, said county staff reached out to other emergency housing non-profits like the Illumination Foundation and the OC Rescue Mission, to invite bids for the recent El Niño contract.
“For whatever reason, the [request] didn’t yield more than just one responder, and that was Mercy House,” Pasco said.
Haynes, for his part, emphasizes that he also has been trying to get other providers to apply for county contracts, to no avail.
And when it comes to the El Niño contract, he said it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to deliver what the county wanted by the time the first rain storm came.
“There were flaws in our grant application…we knew it,” Haynes said, noting that he only applied for 200 of the 440 beds.
But, he said, he took an approach of “let’s step up, and let’s do the best that we can.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.