Santana: Could a Housing Bond End Homelessness in Orange County?

Members of the local homeless community, and advocates for the homeless, stand around a temporary memorial for "Kid," an 18-year-old girl who was living at the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim, and who died of a heroin overdoes the night before, during a vigil on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Photo By Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer

There is no reason on earth that people should be camping out at the riverbed along the 57 Freeway in Anaheim near Angels Stadium.

We should not allow politicians to turn public areas – parks, libraries, civic buildings, flood control areas, stadiums – into makeshift homeless shelters.

“It’s fiscally irresponsible to not end homelessness,” said Mohammed Aly, a recent law school graduate and homeless advocate working in Orange County’s toughest areas.

Yet month after month, year after year, Orange County supervisors continue to drop the ball here, seemingly refusing to acknowledge the depth of the crisis unfolding right outside their doors.

Meanwhile, tax dollars are being wasted on a law enforcement-only approach to homelessness that just makes the problem even worse.

There is no other county issue that’s more important for public safety.

Supervisors and county officials keep pointing to a few recent small steps, like setting up the Courtyard Transition Center in downtown Santa Ana and the Bridges at Kraemer Place in North Orange County, seemingly expecting a standing ovation for two basic moves, which were both long overdue and still fall far short of meeting overall needs.

Indeed, nowhere is the lack of leadership from the county more evident that along the riverbed.

Aly is locked in a battle over providing people with basic bathroom facilities at the riverbed – a seemingly obvious humanitarian gesture given the situation these modern day American refugees face – one that has county officials tied up in a heartless battle, refusing.

“Immediate needs are just as important as a long term solution,” Aly told me.

This Tuesday, the issue is expected to play out at the county Board of Supervisors meeting as supervisors could authorize such temporary usage.

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson deserves credit for stepping up to the plate earlier this month and throwing out a somewhat wild but entrepreneurial idea.

The county owns property all over Orange County.

Surely, it can set up a campground of sorts for these people to head to.

Whether he realized it or not, Nelson has simultaneously challenged every single city official across Orange County to wake up – because a homeless shelter is potentially headed to a site near them.

According to a recent report by our Orange County Register colleague, Jordan Graham, Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel, is already fighting back on one site being considered in Huntington Beach.

Yet Nelson, in my mind, has a near perfect approach.

If you don’t’ like my idea I’m all ears on yours.

My colleague Nick Gerda inadvertently jumped onto the Nelson bandwagon himself – potentially spurring an interesting crowd sourcing exercise – relaying to me a recent county inventory of property that came up from one of his regular beat requests for public records.

I’ve included it here as the file, OCProperties.

The question for all of you is where in your city could you host a campground of sorts on a nearby county lot, a place where homeless people could temporarily pitch a tent or live under a big tent like the Courtyard Transition Center until county plans to build permanent supportive housing catch up to demand.

Sites also could be used to build small structures, like cottages, in campus-like environments.

Its’ a pretty big list of properties so feel free to take your time analyzing and email me your thoughts on any good fits.

Yet housing people in tents is no way to help them transition back to civil society.

We need affordable housing built, especially permanent supportive housing, which is expensive.

Now, given the fact that last year county supervisors cowardly gave away virtually all excess local discretionary budget dollars to fund deputy sheriff raises (aka, good for their political careers), the rest of us will now have to fund basic affordable housing projects to avoid the drama unfolding along the riverbed and other places.

A bond.

It’s probably the only real solution.

It’s not even complicated.

Indeed, it’s much cheaper than the barbaric approach currently being utilized by our county supervisors, which is to only fund one kind of public worker and just ignore the impacts.

Despite the general distaste for taxes in Orange County, Aly believes that a bond can be sold to the public given what everyone sees happening around them.

Advocates can help with public engagement, he said.

“This is something can be channeled positively,” Aly said of looking to develop consensus around specific projects in cities. “Making your community better. If everyone swept their doorstep, the whole world would be clean,” Aly said quoting a popular adage.

Indeed, study after study in Orange County keeps pointing to the same fiscal reality.

It’s cheaper to house than to jail.

Throughout my interviews this week, I was struck by how often I kept hearing the same themes that come up in my discussions with Orange County Business Council President and CEO Lucy Dunn – herself a former state housing commissioner.

We need more housing.

Dunn herself is ringing alarm bells for her CEOs as loud as she can.

Workers don’t have housing. Many bottom end workers are falling onto the streets and riverbeds.

She gets it. Builders and employers get it.

They’re in.

“Intriguing,” is what Dunn said when I asked her about a bond to spur construction.

Local measures, like a county housing bond, can work, she said.

Dunn points to the Measure M transportation bond – recognized for its citizens’ oversight panel and project-specific approach – have raised the bar on expectations from taxpayers, Dunn said.

We need a comprehensive approach, one that can help identify projects in specific cities and maybe even work to gather former redevelopment funds into a countywide pool for affordable and permanent supportive housing across Orange County.

The alternative is a growing and permanent underclass that will transform Orange County, all of us, in a really ugly way.