County Officials Hold Town Hall on Homelessness

County officials were upbeat at a public forum Saturday morning, painting the picture of an energized and proactive government eager to tackle one of the most difficult issues of contemporary American society: homelessness.

Nearly 200 people turned out for a town hall meeting Saturday morning hosted by county Supervisor Andrew Do.

The event functioned like a forum, with the audience submitting questions to the panel, which included Do, Behavior Health Director Mary Hale, Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes, Capt. Travis Whitman of the Garden Grove Police Department, and Susan Price, who heads up the county’s effort to combat homelessness.

Conservative blogger and political consultant Matt Cunningham moderated the event.

Much of the forum was dedicated to explaining what the county is already doing to address homelessness — from services provided by county agencies to rapid rehousing projects funded by state grants.

Do and Price spent much of the forum explaining services at the Courtyard Transitional Center, the homeless shelter and service center that recently opened at an abandoned bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana near the county Civic Center.

“The Courtyard is an experiment – we’ll deal with each issue that comes my way,” said Price. “On the first night, we weren’t ready, but we needed to open because we couldn’t do this another night. We opened the doors and had 83 people who came for safe sleep on the first night.”

She said the building is “less than ideal” but that the county was exploring options on how to heat the open-air terminal and block out the wind.

“When you cover that much area, it’s  a very big engineering study,” Do said. “If you see us moving ahead deliberately, that’s why…it’s not as simple as screwing on a bunch of tarps.”

Asked about whether officials would address the lack of affordable housing countywide, Price noted the difficulty of finding enough units to house the homeless.

“There are 90,000 people on a [section 8 voucher] waiting list and 20,000 recipients in the county, so it’s hard to find a unit,” Price said. “We have tremendous subsidy programs, but [we also have] a 3.3 percent vacancy rate in the County of Orange.”

Do said efforts by the county to incorporate affordable housing into projects can go unrecognized, pointing to a planned community in Rancho Mission Viejo that will be required to include 107 units for senior affordable housing and 112 units for family affordable housing.

“So there’s things we do on a project by project basis as they come up,” Do said. “[But]a…the ability to create affordable housing rests ultimately on the cities.”

There was no discussion of a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which found most of the federal and state funding the county currently receives goes toward maintaining the current stock of transitional and permanent supportive housing.

With those funds stagnant or growing very little, the report argues the county will need to pour its own resources – an estimated $55 million per year out of its general fund – toward creating new affordable housing, if it wants to be able to meet demand.

Do said that although the county has yet to create a complete, coordinated system of care for the homeless, his goal is to eventually have a one-stop-shop that can connect the homeless to all services within the county.

“My vision is one day we will have one phone number that will be universal key to all services…there should only be one number,” said Do.

Do, who faces a tough reelection battle in November, said supervisors’ vote to approve new funding for rapid rehousing last week was not timed for election season.

“There’s always this question of ‘you have all this money, why didn’t you do it sooner, is this all part of electioneering?’” said Do. “No – when it comes to grants from the state or federal government, they have time periods where they go out for applications…and only then, after six or seven months, did we hear back.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.