Garrow: What Will it Take for Orange County to End Homelessness?

ACLU of Southern California

Orange County has long been a national symbol of affluence.

Its median income ranks among the top 3 percent of all counties nationwide. It boasts a county budget topping $3 billion. Its economy is larger than more than half of all U.S. states.

It is also plagued by a grinding and deadly homelessness crisis that gets worse by the day. With all of the resources at its disposal, why, then, can’t the county find an effective way to help thousands of its most vulnerable residents?

A new report by the ACLU of Southern California asks that and many other questions —and astoundingly, elected officials in this rich and resourceful county cry poverty. “It’s not for lack of sympathy and understanding that our hands are tied,” Board Supervisor Shawn Nelson argued during a recent budget hearing, “Orange County does not have the ability to do what other counties have done.”

To its credit, the county hasn’t ignored the issue. In 2010, the Board of Supervisors approved a Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which called for creating more permanent affordable housing—a strategy that studies show is the most effective way to end homelessness. But the ACLU SoCal report finds that today, more than six years later, the county is failing to follow its own blueprint.

County officials originally drew up the Ten-Year Plan to qualify for homelessness services from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But stagnant or shrinking state and federal funds don’t come close to meeting the need. The ACLU SoCal report estimates that Orange County could effectively end homelessness by spending about $55 million per year above what it receives from federal and state sources. That represents only 1.7 percent of the county’s $3.2 billion budget.


ACLU of Southern California

As county officials steadfastly refuse to step up investments in local resources that are key to the Ten-Year Plan’s success, thousands of people literally have nowhere to live. The number of people experiencing homelessness per year increased by 20 percent from 2013 to 2015, local encampments are exploding, and according to Orange County Sheriff-Coroner data, the number of homeless deaths per year doubled from 2009 to 2015.


ACLU of Southern California

As noted in the ACLU SoCal report, affordable housing waitlists drag on for years, and the development of permanent supportive housing doesn’t come close to meeting the demand. Given the county’s sky-high rents, market-rate housing is simply out of reach for people experiencing homelessness.


ACLU of Southern California


The county’s refusal to spend money on real solutions to these problems will end up costing the taxpayers even more. Permanent affordable housing is ultimately cheaper than the expense of jail time, emergency room treatment and other harsh measures faced by individuals who are chronically homeless. Given that only 0.14 percent of the Orange County’s population is homeless—lower than the national average of 0.18 percent—the overall cost of housing them is minimal.

Orange County would do well to follow the example of cities, counties, and states that have successfully reduced homelessness by creating dedicated sources of funding to support housing-first strategies. Housing trust funds are one example—they are designed to bring in dedicated sources of funding for affordable housing, such as fees or loan repayments. The county, cities, corporations, and philanthropic organizations could contribute to the fund to support a coordinated, regional solution to homelessness.

Housing is critical to ending homelessness, but it is only part of the picture. Orange County must reverse course on policies that criminalize homelessness. The county and 33 out of its 34 cities have passed  misguided laws that ban innocent behaviors that homeless individuals cannot avoid, such as sleeping and camping in public.

These laws don’t fulfill their intended purpose, namely, to rid cities of homeless people. Because almost all Orange County cities have ordinances on the books that criminalize, there are few options for relocation and many people decide to stay in place and put up with police harassment.

Such policies only exacerbate the homelessness crisis by ensnaring people in the criminal justice system. People may find it more difficult to escape homelessness when they are burdened with hefty court fees and fines for violating nuisance ordinances and traumatized by police harassment. To get a little relief, some end up in isolated places such as dry riverbeds, foothills, and remote industrial areas, where they are both socially and geographically marginalized. Pushed into the margins, many lack basic necessities, such as food, restroom facilities, and even fresh drinking water.

The report urges the county to take a leadership role in ending these harmful policies.  It should follow the federal government’s lead in condemning criminalization, repeal ordinances that criminalize homelessness, and in allocating federal, state, and local funds, give priority to cities that do not criminalize homelessness.

The fact is, there is nothing preventing Orange County from scaling up their housing-first strategy and ending homelessness for good, except the political will to do so.

Eve Garrow is homelessness policy analyst and advocate at the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal).

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at

  • momamazed

    How many personal challenges could you overcome while sleeping on the streets? The first step to working toward a better life is a roof over your head. Most humans could not achieve what you’re asking of people. I bet you couldn’t either. Housing First is the ONLY solution that has a chance of working. Demanding people live to a standard of behavior most housed people cannot attain is asinine and cruel. Oh, and do some research. There is no program that works to get people permanently sober at a rate greater than 5% – the same rate as no program at all. This moralizing is killing people.

  • James Weaver

    You’re right!

  • James Weaver

    After receiving a City of Santa Ana Housing Choice Voucher 24 hrs. ago, and checking out three apartment complexes, my search for a one bedroom ended in vane. I (a disabled, single, African American w/a 6 yr. old son) was repeatedly told that Housing Vouchers were not acceptable. Even agencies, such as Off The Streets, told me that I didn’t meet their criteria, because I was not actually homeless. I use my fixed income to rent a room for me and my son. Thereby, we’re as close to being in the streets as anybody else. Technically, we’re HOMELESS. I’ve got about two months to utilize my voucher, before it’s voided. It doesn’t look too good for me and my son. As long as apartment managers, various agency’s, Government officials and this community continue to DISCRIMINATE…Need I say more!

  • Good article but homelessness is about a lot more than housing, especially for individuals unaccompanied by children. It’s about losses–of health, mental health, sobriety, jobs, friends and family. Every city in America is struggling with “ending” homelessness and many are making real progress in housing chronically homeless people and veterans. But sorely lacking is the acknowledgement that mental health and substance abuse/addiction issues are major issues in homelessness of unaccompanied individuals and more people will continue to fall into homelessness if we don’t fund and fix the mental health system.

    • James Weaver

      Racism is the first thing that needs to be fixed in Orange County! Fair Housing will NEVER exist until our government officials are prepared to eradicate RACISM. What’s so disturbing is the fact that the majority of racism is practiced by those who weren’t even born in the USA.

      • LFOldTimer

        I feel your pain, James.

        Once when I was driving through L.A. I was hungry so I decided to stop at a chicken and rib place to get some food to go. Shortly after entering the place in my suit I was told I wasn’t welcomed. Actually I appreciated their honesty. I would rather have a food establishment tell me I wasn’t welcomed than put something in my food. So I turned around and I walked out. I drove about 3 miles down the road and found another BBQ place. I had some of the best BBQ chicken and ribs I’ve ever eaten. So I was happy I was told to leave the first place.

        There are good people and bad people wherever we go in life. A county or city boundary can’t protect us from that. It’s part of the human condition.

        • James Weaver

          You are so right…There are many good, decent people, in our society. And, there will always be those who are not…

      • I’ll agree with you that racism is still a major issue, pretty much wherever we live. In fact, people of color are over-represented in the numbers of people who are homeless and/or living in poverty all over the country. I’m a native Arkansan but I live in Memphis, just across the river from Arkansas. This past February I went out for a few days as one of the “Arkansas Travelers for Hillary.” We stopped primarily at small and mid-sized towns in Tennessee and Arkansas and went into stores and neighborhoods to hand out campaign materials and talk to people about why we are such strong supporters of Hillary. When I came back, I told people “We’ve got a race war going on out there.” How anyone could even think of voting for Donald Trump, whose language and actions fuel that fire, is beyond me.

        • James Weaver

          That’s strange that you would be a supporter of a Clinton…Or any Democrat, for that matter. Correct me if I am mistaken, but hasn’t unemployment, homelessness, drug usage, cop killings, overt racism, crime, etc. increased under the rule of the present administration? But, in my opinion, with the building of a WALL, there just might be less drugs and crime in the US; maybe even a few more jobs and housing available, to the people that are born in this country.

          • LFOldTimer

            God bless ya, James. You da man.

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  • LFOldTimer

    This article takes me back to the 60’s when activists protested to end war, hunger and poverty. All of which are more prevalent today than they were back then. And 50 years into the future odds are there will be many more homeless people than we have today.

    The County can certainly do it’s part to help the homeless. And in years gone by there’s been a lot more talk than action. No doubt about it.

    But I think Ms. Garrow misses the point. National and State policies, both fiscal and social, largely determine the degree of homelessness in society. People need jobs and a source of income to get off the streets. Yet the nation continues to offshore jobs and allow undocumented foreigners to enter the country and take jobs from US citizens. How does that help our homeless? It doesn’t. It just creates more.

    The amount of Federal dollars spent to help the mentally ill pales in comparison to the huge budgets for police, prisons and the War on Drugs that we lost 3 decades ago. They’ll spend $50,000 a year to put someone mentally ill in a prison cell instead of providing treatment to prevent him from going there in the first place. But the prison guard’s union would rather have him in jail since it means more job security for their six figure compensations.

    I’m no cheerleader for County government. But jumping all over the county for the homeless problem is really not fair or honest. The county is at the mercy of State and Federal policies on mental illness and homelessness.

    If the county provided A+ services for the homeless population it would only attract more from outside counties and states – multiplying the problem at home. Word travels fast. We would become a magnet for the problem population that is largely a result of stupid State and Federal policies.

    So please. Think outside the box and point your fingers at the real troublemakers here.

    Should the county do it’s part to help the homeless? Absolutely. Can the county do more? Of course. But if you’re really an activist concerned about the treatment of the homeless population 90% of your attention should be focused on Sacramento and Washington DC.

    Oh, and good luck with that.

    • James Weaver

      Okay…Great points. I believe that if civic leaders would focus on the people of the communities that they serve, that would eliminate any questions of disbursement of funds to those coming from other areas. For example, to be awarded a housing voucher, you will be required to be from the community issuing the housing voucher. Citizenship should be a must and strictly enforced. Government officials claim that it’s people don’t want to work, so they’re outsourcing many manufacturers, etc. to other countries for less money and quality. Or, they will employ the illegal immigrants for less pay. Is there any wonder why Americans are vastly becoming unemployed and homeless. And, to comfort their misery, they are self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. The buck starts and stops with you politicians.