Elected Officials Criticize Federal Cuts to Local Homeless Programs

As federal officials oversee a major shift in housing programs for homeless people, a range of local elected officials and unions are condemning the speed of the changes, saying they will force vulnerable families onto the street.

At a news conference Tuesday outside the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Santa Ana, the elected officials – including two members of Congress and several city council members of both major political parties – called on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to reverse its decision to de-fund several local transitional housing programs in favor of more permanent housing services.

Much of the criticism was focused on cuts to Colette’s Children’s Home, a Huntington Beach-based nonprofit that provides transitional housing for homeless women and children. The organization says it’s now slated to lose 120 beds that affect over 250 homeless women and children to each year.

The upcoming cuts “have been to our most vulnerable population,” said Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), adding that local affordable housing wait lists are several years long.

“Our women and children on the street cannot wait three or four years” for a home, said Sanchez, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by a retiring Barbara Boxer. “We need HUD to change direction.”

Also speaking in support of Colette’s and other transitional housing programs were Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-Garden Grove), and city council members Jordan Brandman (D-Anaheim), Sandy Genis (R-Costa Mesa), Michele Martinez (D-Santa Ana), and Billy O’Connell (R-Huntington Beach).

O’Connell, who is also chief executive of Colette’s Children’s Home, described the upcoming cuts as “systematic discrimination” against homeless women and children.

“There’s a whole group of people who are being left out in the cold,” said O’Connell said. “We have the proof to show that it’s cost-effective.”

Homeless housing policy has been undergoing a nationwide shift toward the so-called “housing first” approach, which emphasizes providing permanent housing as quickly as possible and then providing services like drug and mental health treatment and job skills training.

This sea change results in a major drop in transitional housing funding nationwide for next fiscal year and a prioritizing of permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing.

“What we’ve learned through the most recent research…is that there is no service that can’t be delivered in a permanent home,” said Ed Cabrera, a spokesman for HUD.

“In other words, folks shouldn’t have to be waiting in a transitional shelter or housing situation…They should be housed immediately and then surrounded with supportive services.”

In Orange County, this means several transitional housing projects were not renewed for federal funding in the next fiscal year, including about $600,000 in programs run by Colette’s Children’s Home and $500,000 run by The Eli Home.

The overall federal funding for homelessness housing programs in Orange County, meanwhile, is increasing from $19.5 million in the current fiscal year to $22 million next year.

The extra money will help support two new permanent supportive housing and two new rapid re-housing programs, aimed at serving “more than 200 individuals/families,” according to the county.

(Click here to see Orange County’s list of federally-funded homelessness housing programs for the next fiscal year, along with how much was requested for each program.)

While Colette’s transitional housing programs won’t be funded by HUD, Cabrera said, there could be other programs for women and children served by Colette’s and similar groups that aren’t getting their funding renewed. “HUD is ready to help local communities” that are impacted, he said.

The elected officials, meanwhile, said that while the housing-first emphasis is admirable, the shift is happening too fast for some groups of homeless people, like women and children who have faced domestic violence.

Permanent supportive housing is a “great goal,” but if there’s an immediate transition to it “you lose a lot of people” like women and children, said Rep. Lowenthal, who was a longtime community psychology professor at Cal State Long Beach. “If we really care about helping people, you can’t leave out” programs like Colette’s, he said.

Tuesday’s press conference was supported by local labor unions, whose representatives said they fully support homeless programs.

“We have to stand together” to ensure the county’s new year-round shelter takes a comprehensive approach, said Jennifer Muir, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

The homeless people living in the county Civic Center are “a reflection of our values,” added Muir, who was joined by leaders of the Teamsters Local 952, Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, Ironworkers Local 433, and Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice.

Sanchez and Lowenthal said they plan to work with fellow Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein to build a bipartisan coalition in Congress on the issue.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.