Homeless Advocates to Supervisors: We Need $55 Million and Your Leadership

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

The homeless encampment at the Orange County Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

Orange County has both the money and the means to end homelessness –  all that’s missing is the political will.

That’s according to a coalition of homeless advocacy groups, who asked the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday to devote $55 million in taxpayer dollars annually – an amount that represents less than 8 percent of the county’s discretionary budget — toward permanent supportive housing and affordable housing efforts.

“The missing component is really funding. Federal and state sources are stagnant, or they grow slowly, and some are even shrinking,” said Eve Garrow, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) who authored the report.

“The county will really have to fill that gap if we’re going to solve this problem.

In addition to the $55 million, activists are calling on the county to develop a housing trust and take on a stronger leadership role in combating the homeless crisis by pushing cities in the county to repeal laws that ticket the homeless for camping, sleeping and storing their belongings in public spaces.

The call for action from advocates follows the release of an ACLU report last week, “Nowhere to Live: The Homelessness Crisis in Orange County and How to End It.” The 42-page report argues that the county’s 10-year plan for ending homelessness is well-conceived but has been ineffective because of a lack of funding for housing.

“The county has not taken responsibility for funding and developing the permanent supportive housing that is needed to end chronic homelessness in what is one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation,” the report reads. “Instead, it relies on federal, state, and local funding mechanisms that do not come close to providing the needed resources.”

The advocates joining Garrow at the supervisors’ regular meeting Tuesday included representatives from the Anaheim Poverty Task Force, Project Homelessness, Legal Aid Orange County and the Civic Center Roundtable.

Supervisors Have Been Slow to Act

A graphic from the report highlights OC cities that currently have anti-camping ordinances and other laws targeted at homeless populations. Click to enlarge.

A graphic from the report highlights OC cities that currently have anti-camping ordinances and other laws targeted at homeless populations. Click to enlarge.

Supervisors did not comment on the report or the speakers’ remarks during the public comment period; nor did they say anything during the supervisors’ comment period at the end of the meeting.

The county has only recently begun to address homelessness after years of complaints about the rising population of homeless individuals living at the Civic Center, along the Santa Ana River and in parks and streets around the county.

Last Thursday, the county officially opened the Courtyard Transitional Center — an ad-hoc homeless shelter at an abandoned bus terminal where the homeless can sleep, eat, store their belongings and access county services.

The board on Tuesday also voted to approve a number of agreements totaling more than $1.1 million in state grants toward rapid rehousing and emergency shelter services,

Homeless advocates have largely praised the supervisors for their efforts to get the bus terminal shelter up and running. But Garrow says the linchpin of any strategy to reduce homelessness is to provide housing – and that costs money, more than what state and federal funding currently provides.

“It would be a drop in the bucket in this county’s budget to end this now,” said Garrow.

A Hard Place to Find Housing


A chart from the ACLU report.

Orange County is a “perfect storm” for chronic homelessness, where a high cost of living, rising rent, stagnant or declining wages and a weak social safety net put many people at risk of homelessness, according to the report. Median rents increased by 19 percent between 2000 and 2012, but median income fell by 10 percent, according to the report.

Many studies have shown that the most effective way to end chronic homelessness is to provide permanent and stable housing.

The chronically homeless are people who have experienced more than a year of homelessness or several bouts of homelessness, and often have disabilities, mental health conditions, and other circumstances that make them vulnerable to unstable housing.

The report cites studies that estimate the cost per day of permanent or affordable housing at $28, compared to $32 per day at a shelter, and $87 dollars in a jail.

While the county’s 10-year plan, adopted in 2007, makes rapid rehousing of the chronically homeless a priority, there’s not nearly enough supply to meet demand, the report said.

If the county finds the funding to follow through with an existing plan to create 280 new permanent supportive housing beds, they would only be able to house a quarter to a third of all the chronically homeless in the county, which is estimated to be 4,452 people on any given night, according to the county’s 2015 point-in-time count. By the end of 2017, the county would need to add another 460 beds, for a total of 740, to meeting existing need, the report states.

Existing federal and state funding is only enough to maintain the current stock of transitional and permanent supportive housing, with federal funds growing by an average of 5 percent a year, according to the report.

As a result, the county tends to push homeless people out of transitional housing beds and use those funds for permanent housing, or push out people who don’t fit the definition of chronic homelessness, according to the report.

The ACLU estimates that shifting the $2.3 million currently dedicated to transitional housing to pay for permanent supportive housing would only pay for 100 additional beds.

They estimate the county would need to generate an additional $10.9 million annually to permanently house the chronically homeless population. It would cost $43.9 million annually to house the 90 percent of homeless who don’t meet the criteria for chronic homelessness.

“Without the necessary funding commitment, the shelters will just become holding places for people experiencing homelessness,” Linda Lehnkering, a member of the Anaheim Poverty Task Force, told supervisors.

screenshot-13“Only 2 percent of the people in existing shelters currently exit to permanent supportive housing. A fifth cycle to other emergency temporary shelters. Seventy percent go back to the streets or another location,” Lehnkering said, citing the report.

The chronically homeless can wait years for a unit to become available, while those who don’t meet that definition – about 90 percent of the homeless population – are put on wait lists for affordable housing vouchers. Some wait lists are closed entirely, Garrow said.

Among the speakers Tuesday was Anna Mae Gonzalez, a 66-year-old woman with multiple disabilities who has been homeless for nine years. Gonzalez has appeared before the supervisors several times pleading for more action.

Gonzalez, who is known as “Mama Brizy” among Civic Center residents, said she applied for housing three years ago, but has yet to hear back. She is currently applying again for housing through the nonprofit Mercy House.

With a recent heart surgery and the death of some of her homeless friends over the past year, Gonzalez says she has fallen into a deep depression and can’t help but feel despair over whether help will arrive in time for many of her friends.

“I’m worried about [my friend], she gets so depressed,” Gonzalez said. It’s gotten really bad for me, I’m always worried who is going to die next.”

Now losing her memory and her eyesight, Gonzalez says what she misses the most about being indoors is the freedom to do things for herself.

“I miss all that, the cooking and the cleaning, even cleaning the bathroom,” Gonzalez said. “My family – the people on the street – they’re all invited to come when I have a home.”

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

  • Gunny98

    When the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was slated for closure, someone should have seen that the base housing that stood on both sides of Irvine blvd could have been used for the homeless/homeless families.

    • LFOldTimer

      A homeless shelter south of Tustin?

      Are you joking?

  • Valkyrie Joos

    I don’t agree. There is no solution contained here only the old “cry poor” and it is not exactly accurate. There is money we could obtain, surplus dollars and logistics and service quality issues that can be addressed long before we confront the county tax pockets. Actually, if done right our supervisors could end up heros and maybe people who are front and mid-level that work hard and want positive change can rise up to push us into the 21st century.

    We also need to treat people with dignity and respect and stop scapegoating or using the issue to further agendas that only cause more resentment towards the demographic that needs services.

    It is not always about how much money, but how the money is spent that is at issue.

  • LFOldTimer

    Well, the coalition of homeless advocacy groups are too late to the party. They’re going to have to wait until next election season in 2018 to advance their bid. Nobody’s going to listen to them now that the homeless bus depot shelter just opened it’s doors. And people had to move mountains to make that happen. The $55M is a pipe dream. Haven’t you heard that the BoS wants to spend $500,000,000 (yes, half a BILLION) on a complete remodel of the Civic Center (even though the existing structures are sound and only need a little added retrofitting)? The Civic Center remodel is their priority. Not homes for the homeless.

    Besides, they don’t want to create an oasis for the homeless in the OC because they’re afraid it will attract a growing homeless population from neighboring counties and states. Let’s be honest. No city or county ever prospered by offering the best facilities and the best services for the homeless population. So just getting the OC to provide facilities and services that are at par with the neighboring counties and states would be a huge accomplishment. So let’s shoot for realistic goals. Asking for $55M will only get you the cold shoulder. Better to ask for $25M and hope to get $12M- $15M.

    If you really want to help the homeless you should protest to the State and Federal governments. They create the POLICIES that actually RESULT in homelessness – like offshoring jobs and turning a blind eye to foreigners who enter the country and illegally steal jobs from US citizens. The county has only so much power and so much money.

    Hint: Brown, the legislators in Sacramento, Obama, Boxer and Feinstein are not your friends.

    • annomouse

      Shame on you for trying to blame homelessness on immigrants.

      1) They don’t “illegally steal jobs” they are offered them and paid by U.S. EMPLOYERS.

      2) The majority of the chronically homeless (the one’s you see at the Civic Center, riverbeds and freeway underpasses) are people who probably could never hold down a job due to mental illness, addiction issues or physical disabilities.

      3) There is a direct link to the homeless situation in this country to RONALD REAGAN and his cruel and backward policies. When RR came into office homelessness was negligible, when he left there were over 2 MILLION homeless people.

      • LFOldTimer

        I didn’t say the entire homeless problem is caused by illegal immigration. But some of it surely is.

        Every time someone enters the nation illegally and steals an American job – that is one less job for a citizen. Undoubtedly some homeless citizens are on the streets because they cannot find work. I’ve heard story after story that confirms it.

        People hire illegal aliens because both Democrats and Republicans allow them to do it without enforcing the law or punishing the offenders.

        Both the one taking the job illegally and the one hiring them are criminals.

        So you are in denial.

        Offshoring jobs is another cause. Both Democrats and Republicans are responsible for that.

        Failure to appropriately treat mental illness is another cause. Democrats and Republicans are responsible for that.

        Illegal substances are another cause.

        Most liberals I knew were in favor of releasing the mentally ill from what was considered involuntary incarceration under the Reagan administration. The liberals felt it was unjust and cruel to commit someone who had committed no crime. So while Reagan emptied the insane asylums – he did it with lots of liberal approval. To claim otherwise is pure denial.

        Do I think Reagan made a mistake? You bet I do. He released millions who could not function in society and had no place to go. So they ended up on the streets.

        Is Reagan solely responsible for the homeless problem? Of course not. (See the reasons that I stated above).

        • annomouse

          In a nutshell:
          Starting in the late 50’s mental health activists and the medical community started to rethink our state mental facilities, the conditions were terrible and patients had little or no say over their lives. There was a push towards deinstitutionalization and community based treatment facilities. Most of the facilities were underfunded and the responsibility was more than the community could handle. The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill was pretty much a huge failure and California was really the test case. A lot of what was going wrong happened on Reagan’s watch, but he was not responsible for that failed experiment. It’s what he did as President and his failure to learn from what he witnessed first hand in California that he’s to blame for.
          Late in Jimmy Carter’s presidency he signed the Mental Health Systems Act, which which would have helped Federally fund community mental health centers and improve services for people with chronic mental illness.
          Then along came Reagan and his Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act which repealed Carter’s community health legislation and established block grants for the states, ending the federal government’s role in providing services to the mentally ill. Federal mental-health spending decreased by 30 percent.
          But that wasn’t the WORST thing that he did, what really exploded homelessness in this country was his SLASHING of HUD. He cut the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development by 75%, from $32 billion in 1981 to $7.5 billion by 1988. HUD was the main governmental supporter of subsidized housing for the poor. He also overhauled the tax codes to reduce incentives for private developers to build low-income housing and created a major crisis for low-income families and individuals.

          • LFOldTimer

            It would be nice for you to apologize for shaming me. My explanation was perfectly rational about how illegal immigration creates more homelessness in Orange County. And then you ignored it. Shame on you.

          • annomouse

            Why should I? You didn’t retract your statement and you were wrong. What seems “rational” to you may not seem rational to others.