County Officials Tout Efforts for Homeless, But Funding Still a Question

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

A homeless woman at the Orange County Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

Orange County supervisors got a frank assessment Tuesday on the state of the county’s homeless care system from their new homeless czar, who noted progress on several fronts but also pointed to major gaps that remain.

During a special study session on homelessness, Susan Price, who was hired in May as the county’s first director of homeless care coordination, presented the main findings from a report she just issued.

Among the positives highlighted by Price is the shelter and service center the county opened this month at the abandoned bus terminal near the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center. She also talked about how Mental health nurses are now accompanying police who interact with homeless people in some cities. 

But, Price said, much work remains to fix a fragmented and uncoordinated system that’s lacking in essential services that would help lives and at the same time likely reduce costs to the public.

Among the challenges she outlined: A data system that doesn’t show service providers where available shelter beds are in real-time; a lack of services to treat mental and physical health issues before they lead to expensive hospital visits; and few resources for single men and women, who make up the the vast majority of people on the streets.

The biggest resource the county lacks is also the most obvious: affordable housing to help get people off the streets.

While 3,058 single men and women were homeless during last year’s point-in-time count, there are just 1,624 rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing beds for them, Price said.

“Is it enough? No,” she said, emphasizing that an effective homeless care system helps people get on a “pathway to housing.”

Price sees opportunities in renovating existing housing, like a project in Santa Ana to convert a motel into housing for homeless people, as well as creating small homes, like the Potters Lane project in Midway City, which recently converted shipping containers into homes for homeless veterans.

Supervisors on Tuesday said they were committed to improving the homeless services system, and acknowledged the need for affordable housing.

“This is just the beginning,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, who called for the special session. “I believe Orange County will be on the forefront of something very revolutionary” when Price’s recommendations are implemented on housing, mental health and criminal justice reform.

However, Do and his colleagues showed no interest Tuesday in figuring out how to fund a significant expansion of affordable housing. In fact, there was only criticism from the dais regarding a funding request made last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU).

A recent report by the ACLU estimates that it would take $13 million a year to permanently house the chronically homeless population, and a total of $55 million a year to house the entire homeless population.

ACLU representatives showed up to the supervisors’ regular meeting last week and urged them to dedicate part of the county’s $744 million in annual discretionary funds to such an effort. They said an investment, if managed properly, would ultimately get people off the streets and save money for taxpayers by reducing emergency room visits and other public costs of homelessness.

But supervisors offered no response last week, and on Tuesday, Supervisor Shawn Nelson called the request unrealistic.

“Orange County gets less [return on property tax money] than any county of [all] 58 counties in the state,” Nelson said.

He is referring to data that show the state funneling just 6 percent of property taxes paid by Orange County residents back to the county government, the lowest rate of any county statewide. In comparison, Los Angeles County gets back 20 percent, according to the data from the state Board of Equalization.

But what Nelson didn’t say is that the portion of the county’s budget controlled by supervisors has grown significantly in recent years, and they have chosen to direct much of the increase toward law enforcement.

Since 2010, discretionary spending has grown by $78 million, according to county budget documents. During this period, supervisors have added $20 million in discretionary funding to the sheriff’s department, while reducing discretionary funding for health and social services by $33 million, budget documents show.

“This system is severely underfunded. And without county commitment to filling that [housing] gap, I just don’t see how the rest of these components are going to provide a pathway out of homelessness,” said Eve Garrow, a homeless policy advocate with the ACLU who authored their recent report.

“You can coordinate services. You can make other services easier for people to access. But without housing to link people to, they’ll still be homeless.”

In response to Price’s presentation, supervisors did show an interest in improving certain services to homeless people.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said it was difficult for homeless people to sign up for food stamps and welfare benefits, and sought ways to streamline the process.

“This form is beyond complicated – I couldn’t fill this darned thing out on my own,” Spitzer said, holding up the benefits sign-up form. He said it asks for a birth certificate, proof of where the applicant lives, social security info, income statements, and immigration certification.

“I was phenomenally blown away [by] what you have to prove” to get benefits, he said. “I didn’t know, and shame on me.”

At Spitzer’s urging, Price and social services officials said they’d try to get other agencies, like the DMV, to visit the shelter once or twice a month during benefit sign-ups so it’s a “one stop shop” for homeless people to get the documents they need to sign up for benefits.

Price made a series of recommendations to supervisors, including re-structuring the homeless care system’s governance, working more closely with cities, diversifying resources for homeless people, implementing a restaurant meals program, improving the homeless management software, and creating more affordable housing development.

(Click here to read Price’s report, “An Assessment of Homeless Services in Orange County.”)

She also emphasized that the opening of the shelter and service center in the bus terminal was an important step.

“I really can’t say enough about what it’s been like” to talk to people there, Price said.“They’re very excited to be given an opportunity, and really a sigh of relief.”

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