OC Supervisors Quietly Deleted Plan to End Homelessness From Goals

The Orange County Board of Supervisors. From left: Michelle Steel, Shawn Nelson, Todd Spitzer, Lisa Bartlett, and Andrew Do. (Photos by Nick Gerda and Katlin Washburn)

Orange County supervisors this week quietly deleted the central guide for the county commission tasked with reducing homelessness: the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which was the byproduct of years of community input and emphasized expanding the affordable housing supply for homeless people as a “top priority.”

The commission’s new governing rules remove all references to the 10-year plan, and do not continue the prior commitment to make affordable housing expansion a “top priority.”

The supervisors also granted themselves complete power over the commission. Their action removes all current members and changes the selection rules so supervisors now will pick all of the commissioners who have voting power.

Previously, they chose just one of the 19 commissioners, with the rest selected by other community representatives.

And the supervisors, who couldn’t remove commissioners before, granted themselves the power to remove any commission member any time they want, without needing to state a reason.

Additionally, the supervisors removed the commission's longstanding goal of ending homelessness by September 2020. The new governing rules set no target date.

The move came as sheriff’s deputies this week began the process of clearing 460 to 1,000 homeless people from the Santa Ana River Trail camp from Angel Stadium to the 5 freeway.

Over the past year, activists said the supervisors failed to implement the 10-year plan by not funding the housing it calls for. But county officials said they remain committed to the plan, including continuing to expand affordable housing options for homeless people. There is a major shortage of affordable housing.

“While many of the core precepts of the original commission continue to apply, new challenges have emerged over the past eight years regarding homelessness in Orange County,” said supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do in a statement about the new commission structure.

“The new Commission to End Homelessness will promote better integration of systems such as health care, criminal justice, affordable housing and homelessness prevention."

He didn't describe the new challenges he referenced or why they prompted a need to change the commission's purpose.

And neither Do's statement, nor the overall news release about the changes that his quote was part of, mentioned the action deletes the 10-year plan from the commission's purpose and grants the supervisors more influence over the panel.

Susan Price, who oversees the county’s homelessness efforts, said the county and the commission remain committed to implementing the 10-year plan, including the housing expansion components.

“I think we’re elevating our efforts in a lot of ways,” Price said in an interview this week, pointing to the supervisors’ direction this month to allocate up to $15 million in state mental health money for new permanent supportive housing. Additional housing investments will be rolling out this year, she said.

Asked later if the 10-year plan and its housing strategy still are goals of the county and the commission, Price said they are.

Asked why, if that’s the case, the 10-year plan was removed from the commission's official purpose, Price didn’t reply Thursday evening through a spokeswoman.

The new governing rules define a much more general purpose for the commission, such as collaborating with governments and other groups on "affordable housing development, data and gaps analysis, best practice research, social policy and systemic change to promote an effective response to homelessness within the County of Orange."

A study last year by UC Irvine, which involved the county government, found it would save taxpayer dollars overall to provide housing and support services to the entire chronically homeless population 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 cost of public services when homeless people are in permanent supportive housing is about 50 percent lower than when they’re on the streets ($51,000 versus $100,000), according to the UCI study. The researchers estimated a savings of about $42 million per year if all of Orange County’s chronically homeless people were in permanent supportive housing.

“The studies are clear. Housing is a cost-effective solution to addressing homelessness,” said attorney Darren Veracruz, during public comments to the supervisors at their meeting Tuesday.

Referring to the county’s effort to move out hundreds of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed encampment without an alternative place for them to go besides cities where camping is a crime, he added: “Your actions to marginalize and criminalize this population underscores that you have no intention to find an actual solution to this growing problem.”

Orange County has a severe shortage of affordable housing for homeless people, as was seen in November, when eight homeless people were required to leave the county’s “Bridges at Kraemer Place” shelter because homes weren’t available before they hit a 180-day limit for them to stay at the transitional shelter. Shelter officials later extended the time people can stay there.

County supervisors have declined requests from the public to take the lead in expanding permanent housing, either through convening a community-wide conversation, or devoting some of the county’s discretionary money, which grows by tens of millions of dollars each year, to it.

The supervisors have approved about $10 million in state mental health money for permanent supportive housing for people with severe mental illnesses – enough to house about 2 percent of the homeless population, though most homeless people won’t qualify for it.

Over the past decade, county supervisors have cut $16 million in funding they control from public health services, which includes mental health, while at the same time adding $64 million to the Sheriff’s Department budget, largely for salary and compensation increases.

The Sheriff’s Department’s sharp cost increase is largely due to a $62-million, three year salary and benefits raise for sheriff’s deputies that supervisors approved in September 2016, which ties up much of the growth in county discretionary dollars.

Supervisors approved the pay raises unanimously and without public discussion, and the deputies’ union went on to spend $100,000 supporting Supervisor Andrew Do in his tight run for re-election in November 2016, which he ultimately won by 0.4 percent of the vote.

The county’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness called for implementation of the nationally-recognized “housing first” approach for homeless people with disabilities. This past summer, Do criticized that model, which research has shown to be highly effective, as leading to “crack houses.” He didn’t provide any evidence or examples to back up his statement.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, county supervisors, led by Do, disbanded the Commission to End Homelessness, which was created to implement the 10-year plan, and are replacing it with a new commission with the same name. But its governing rules, known as bylaws, no longer task it with implementing the 10-year plan, and the plan isn't mentioned at all in the new rules.

The commission’s main task up until now has been to implement the plan, which was developed over a period of four years – from 2008 until 2012 – by a broad group of community leaders, including the county.

The supervisors granted themselves the power to appoint all 17 voting members of the new commission, and remove any commissioner “any time and without cause.”

Until now, the commissioners were appointed by a wide variety of community stakeholder groups – like city managers, nonprofit service providers, and law enforcement – with the supervisors appointing just one member out of 19.

And the supervisors previously did not have the authority to remove commissioners. Only the commission itself could remove a member.

(Click here to read the current governing rules and here for the new ones approved by the supervisors this week.)

The 10-year plan had a detailed commitment to making “permanent housing opportunities" a “top priority.”

And a 2012 presentation by the county’s then-point person on homelessness, Karen Roper, described the main goal of the second half of the plan – from 2015 through 2020 as: “Focus on Creation of Affordable Permanent Housing and Supportive Services.”

The new commission bylaws give a single reference to “affordable housing development,” among a list of other objectives, without describing it as a top priority.

County officials say they are developing a new strategy document for housing, but it has not been finalized and there’s no target date for when it will be ready.

The county issued a news release announcing the commission changes Thursday, but it did not mention the removal of the 10-year plan or additional powers over the commission the supervisors granted themselves.

Do said at Tuesday’s meeting the changes to the homelessness commission are about improving countywide “effectiveness.”

The hope is to improve “response to local objectives, through our continuum of care,” Do said just before supervisors voted to approve the changes.

The way county officials posted the agenda item made it difficult to see what was being deleted.

While proposed changes to county policies typically include a document showing the changes – known as a “redline” document – it wasn’t included for the homelessness commission changes.

Voice of OC asked county officials for a version that shows the changes, but the county declined to provide one, saying the new bylaws are replacing the old ones rather than changing them.

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