Housing Shortage Sent Homeless at Transitional Shelter Back to Streets

Photo by Thy Vo

Officials view phase one of the Kraemer shelter, which includes bunk beds for both men and women, and dining space, before it opened.

The shortage of affordable housing in Orange County sent eight homeless people back to the streets last week, because homes weren’t available before they hit the 180-day limit for them to stay at the county’s “Bridges at Kraemer Place” shelter that prepares people to move into housing.

Among the eight who were required to leave the 100-bed shelter, five either were allowed back in or now are in housing, and shelter staff have reached out to the other three but have not been able to locate them, according to Larry Haynes, who leads the nonprofit group with the county contract to operate the shelter. The nonprofit, Mercy House, now has permission from the county to grant exceptions to the 180-day limit, he and county officials said.

“What it highlights,” Haynes said in an interview Tuesday, “in a very real and tangible way, is the need for permanent housing. And we need to do everything we can to develop more permanent housing.”

“There’s not a lot of affordable housing stock out there,” he added. “Because of this lack of housing, there then is this backup.”

Nearly everyone at the shelter has been set up with a plan for the right type of housing for them – including necessary documents – within seven to 10 days of their arrival at Bridges, Haynes said.

Of the 240 people who have stayed at Bridges since it opened six months ago, 24 people have moved into housing, according to the county.

Susan Price, who is in charge of the county’s homeless services, was unavailable Tuesday for an interview, according to a county spokeswoman.

“The County and Mercy House have been working directly with the clients to find the best next step for each person as they continue on their journey,” county spokeswoman Carrie Braun said in an emailed statement Monday. “The County of Orange system of care [for homeless people] needs more affordable housing solutions.”

The county keeps talking about the shelter being a “bridge to housing,” but that won’t be the case until there’s actual housing for people to move into, said Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

“It just goes to show these are just words, when there’s no funding to back it up,” Garrow said.

“That’s why they called it ‘Bridges.’ Because it was…supposed to be a bridge to housing,” said Tim Houchen, who was formerly homeless in the county Civic Center and now lives in an apartment. “You’re supposed to spend 30 days in a shelter,” and that was “supposed to be your bridge to housing.”

“We don’t have that system of care that [the county is] trying to make everybody think that they have. We don’t need a new system of care. What we need is to [implement] the 10-year plan.”

Houchen was referring to the county’s own 10-year plan to end homelessness, which called for a major focus from 2015 through 2020 on expanding the affordable housing supply for homeless people to get off the streets.

The county now is preparing to backtrack from the plan, with supervisors expected to vote next month on removing implementation of the plan as a goal of the county’s homelessness commission. Under the proposal, which is expected to be up for approval Dec. 5, the county supervisors also would rename the “Commission to End Homelessness” to the “System of Care Commission.”

A study earlier this year by UC Irvine researchers found it would save taxpayer dollars overall to provide housing and support services to all of the more than 4,800 homeless people in Orange County. That’s largely because of the enormous hospital bills the public currently pays, because homeless people end up in the emergency room much more often when they live on the streets.

The average total cost to the public when chronically homeless people are in permanent supportive housing is about half than when they’re on the streets ($51,000 versus $100,000), according to the study, which was conducted by sociology professors David Snow and Rachel Goldberg.

“The cost savings data on housing the homeless in general, and particularly the chronically street homeless, show a consistent and compelling pattern: costs are markedly lower among the homeless who are housed, and this is especially true for the chronically homeless,” the researchers wrote.

They estimated a total savings of about $42 million per year if all of Orange County’s chronically homeless people were in permanent supportive housing.

County supervisors voted in June to allocate $5 million in state mental health funds toward housing up to 50 people with serious mental illnesses, enough to house up to 1 percent of the known homeless population. The overall permanent supportive housing supply in Orange County, from all organizations and funding sources, grew by 271 beds from 2016 to 2017, according to the county, enough to house about 6 percent of the known homeless population.

The idea of having the county lead a major expansion of affordable housing for homeless people has not been popular lately among county supervisors, who control county funding and have been critical of advocates’ requests that the county invest in housing for the homeless. 

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents homeless people, said it wasn’t surprising to hear people ended up back on the streets from the Bridges shelter.

She said it shows that “people desperate for help who enter the limited emergency shelter options…are unable to transition to housing because there simply isn’t any [available].”

Among those who were required to leave the shelter due to the 180-day limit was a woman in her 60s, according to Dwight Smith, who runs a shelter for homeless women with his wife at their Santa Ana home.

County officials have so far declined to provide the age, race, and gender of the people who were required to leave.

“I asked the Board of Supervisors the last time I was before them, to do something that was amazingly conservative, totally Republican, and sorely in need. And that is to provide an audit of [the cost of] each successful outcome” for people, Smith said, adding that most chronically homeless people need permanent housing.

When the Kraemer shelter first opened, officials had said there wouldn’t be a strict time limit for people to stay there, but such a limit ultimately was imposed.

“The County has reevaluated the 180 day limit, and we have worked to provide the option for Mercy House to waive the limit for clients who are document-ready and close to being placed into housing,” Braun, the county spokeswoman, said in her statement Monday. “The extension will be used at the discretion of Mercy House.”

In their statement earlier this week, county officials suggested 11 people were required to leave last week due to the 180-day limit. But Haynes said three of the 11 were actually required to leave for other reasons he said he couldn’t describe for privacy reasons.

Haynes said the solution to the housing shortage requires both additional affordable housing for the homeless and an overall increase in the housing supply, which has been growing ever-more limited, thus increasing prices for everyone and contributing to homelessness.

“At some point it is basic supply and demand. And if you restrict the market and disallow more housing [that] needs to be created, you are going to make that existing asset more precious. The more precious it is, the more expensive it is,” and the more scarce it is, Haynes said.

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