As Orange County officials continue to grapple with the ever-growing homeless population at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center, they can at least take solace in the fact that they are not alone in dealing with such a seemingly intractable problem – far from it.
Up the coast in San Francisco, officials took the aggressive step over a recent weekend of clearing out a homeless camp underneath a freeway overpass after repeated complaints from nearby residents and businesses. In the days leading up to the shut-down, outreach workers encouraged the camp residents to relocate to a newly-opened shelter, with transportation provided.
In Seattle, officials are debating whether to shut down and fence off a massive encampment known as “The Jungle,” after a shooting there left two people dead and three wounded.
The situations in San Francisco and Seattle follow the late 2014 decision by San Jose officials to dismantle a homeless encampment that had also been dubbed “The Jungle.” But the homeless problem in the heart of Silicon Valley remains so acute that leaders in San Jose are now considering reversing course and officially sanctioning a tent city.
So if these are the moves being made in some of the nation’s progressive bastions, is a similar action on tap in Orange County if the situation at the Civic Center continues to deteriorate?
It is certainly possible, but, advocates say, not probable in the foreseeable future.
The main reason being that the county currently is already near capacity on emergency shelter space. If they were to be dispersed from the Civic Center, they would likely move into neighborhoods and business districts, thus creating even bigger political headaches for county and city officials.
But, advocates say, that doesn’t mean that the status quo is anywhere near acceptable, in addition to being expensive for taxpayers. And things could easily go from bad to worse in a hurry.
“From a public health standpoint of view…it is a crisis,” said Paul Leon, a former nurse who serves as president and CEO of the nonprofit Illumination Foundation.
“Right now if someone were to get sick in the civic center – and we’re talking about communicable disease, it’s gonna get all over. Because those individuals don’t just stay in the Civic Center.”
And federal housing officials say the average chronically homeless person costs taxpayers over $40,000 per year, largely due to emergency room visits and jail stays.
But there’s hope, Leon and others say, pointing to proven approaches elsewhere and a growing buy-in from elected officials in Orange County.
Nationwide, several communities say they’ve made major progress in reducing homelessness – and saving taxpayer dollars – by providing permanent housing for chronically homeless people, with support services.
This involves building trusting relationships with homeless people and thereby gaining a better understanding of the issues they face. Then it’s easier to connect people with right kind of support services, and for them to be receptive to living healthier lives.
That approach has been tremendously successful in Utah. Officials there say chronic homelessness has dropped by over 90 percent since 2005, with many homeless people kicking their addictions and holding down jobs.
There were several key principles behind the success, according to Lloyd Pendleton, who co-founded the Utah program and directed the state’s Homeless Task Force.
One is to have a “champion,” — either an elected official or someone they support — take leadership in bringing together the key players, including faith-based groups, business groups, housing providers, and nonprofits. The groups then need to agree on a goal of getting a specific number of people housed by a specific time and work collectively to make it happen.
“Collaboration becomes a key piece,” Pendleton told Voice of OC.
Second, he said, it’s a good idea to start small, “learn lots” from that experience, demonstrate it works, and grow from there. That “changes the dynamics of the discussion” because it’s already in place, Pendleton said.
“It’s not such a big task” to place five or 10 people in housing, he said. “You start small and you start soon.”
Pendleton added that saw a lot of raw material in Orange County to be optimistic about when he visited in November to speak at the invitation of Karen Williams of the nonprofit group 2-1-1 Orange County.
“I was impressed that you have the ingredients there, that you could make it happen, when somebody steps up and kind of takes the [lead]. I sensed good potential.”
Pendleton emphasized the importance of county supervisors, who oversee homeless funding and programs in Orange County, taking an active role.
“The supervisors ought to be at the table in order to really pull that whole county together,” he said.
Supervisor Andrew Do – who represents Santa Ana and the Civic Center area – said he agrees with Pendleton on the need for an elected leader to step up.
“That’s why on the elected front, I have chosen to take on that role, and I’m glad to do it,” Do said, adding that he plans to work closely with the county’s upcoming homeless services coordinator to put together a coherent strategy.
“I think those comments are completely in line with my thinking,” Do said of Pendelton.
Do’s interest has been a welcome development for homeless advocates and providers, like Leon of the Illumination Foundation.
“Now it looks like it’s starting to shift, like they’re starting to say ‘Okay how do we do this?’ ” said Leon. “It is so much more effective doing it this way, because it goes to the root of the problem.”
Leon emphasized the importance of having case managers and nurses, who build trust with homeless people, work to understand their individual needs, and help them connect to services.
To see how this can work, he points to a program developed by his own Illumination Foundation. It focuses on 36 of the most-frequent and costly homeless users of hospital services, providing them with housing and support services.
Over 70 percent had a mental health condition, and about 80 percent had a substance abuse history, according to the foundation.
To date, all 36 people remain in housing, Leon said, adding that the $1.4 million, two-year program has saved $14 million in hospital costs at St. Joseph Hospital alone.
This has given Leon confidence that a similar approach would work at the Civic Center, which he predicted could be significantly cleaned up in a matter of three or four months.
He said he’s already made a proposal to county officials.
“It’s triaging the individuals that are there, and individualizing their plan of care. Much like what you do in a hospital, or if there’s a disaster or a crisis, like there is now [at the Civic Center],” Leon said.
Do, meanwhile, said he’s still exploring various types of approaches to the Civic Center situation, but agreed on the importance of understanding individual homeless people’s needs.
“That view of viewing things and analyzing the issues facing homeless individuals is really the underlying philosophy of my care coordinator position,” Do said. The position should be filled in the coming months, he added.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.