Cities across Orange County are now on board with a plan to double the amount of permanent supportive housing for homeless people from the current 2,700 units to 5,400 units, divided among cities by their population, according to the countywide association of cities.

The housing effort is being organized by the Association of California Cities – Orange County and Orange County United Way, which commissioned a study by UC Irvine that found it costs the public less to house people with wraparound health services than keep them on the streets where they often rotate in and out of emergency rooms and jails.

If built, the 2,700 new units would be enough to house more than half of the 4,792 homeless people counted in Orange County during the latest official count in January 2017.

The idea is to fund the housing with a variety of sources, including private donations from wealthy families, county mental health money, state grants, and federal tax credits. And cities are looking at allowing the housing to be built on land they already own, to help reduce costs.

An effort also is underway to raise a total of $100 million from 50 wealthy Orange County families for the effort, which would be outlined in a business plan, according to the cities’ association. The plan is to use that local money to compete for state and federal dollars and develop supportive housing for homeless people.

And a wide swath of local leaders – from business, religion, philanthropy, and government – are convening Wednesday to launch a collaborative campaign to reduce homelessness based on an approach in Orlando, Florida that officials say cut homelessness there by 50 percent.

These efforts come amid a rapid pick-up in urgency locally to address homelessness, with a federal judge prompting quick action this month from county officials to relocate over 700 people living along the Santa Ana River Trail into short-term housing at motels.

The relocation was finished Sunday, with county officials saying they’ve spent at least $2.6 million on the motel-housing effort so far, including $1.7 million on a six-month lease for a motel.

U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter has said he plans to continue his oversight to ensure homeless people are treated humanely, including monitoring county officials’ commitment to set up organized tent camps on county property with centralized food, health, and sanitation services.

The judge also has said longer-term solutions are needed, and that it will be up to community members to step up and collaborate to make it happen.

The city-level interest in expanding housing received a major boost Feb. 15, when officials from 31 of Orange County’s 34 cities attended a dinner hosted by the cities’ association, said Heather Stratman, the association’s CEO.

The cities’ association presented data showing it cost less to house chronically homeless people and provide services than leave them on the streets, and issued a call to action for cities to add 2,700 new housing units for the homeless.

“It costs twice as much to keep people living on the street than providing them permanent supportive housing,” Sue Parks, the new CEO of Orange County United Way, told attendees.

The idea is for the housing to be split among cities based on their population, to share the responsibility and lessen the number of units each individual city would take on.

“I invited every city manager and every mayor, or their designee,” to come to the Feb. 15 dinner, said Stratman, the city association’s chief executive, in an interview Friday.

She said her group wanted buy-in from each city for the new housing units and for city officials to work with the association to find locations and implement a countywide plan to built the 2,700 new units.

That kind of call to action never happened before in Orange County, Stratman said. And she said she was blown away by the reaction. Most cities are on board, she said.

“To be honest, I was kind of holding my breath that night. But the overwhelming response and enthusiasm has been awesome,” Stratman said.

“It’s ambitious. But I will tell you I have never seen this level of cooperation or enthusiasm to get it done. And so we’re gonna push hard, and we’ll see. In my mind, failure is not an option on this one.”

By splitting the housing based on city population, Stratman said it makes the number of units in each city much smaller and more feasible.

“When you break it down like that, it’s very doable,” she said.

Stratman said a few hundred of the housing units could come online between the end of this year and mid-2019, with the rest becoming available over the following 18 to 24 months.

And work is already underway to start finding locations. City officials plan to meet this week to identify potential sites for the new housing and build that into a business plan, Stratman said.

Simultaneously, the cities’ association is working on finding funding, which could include donations from local corporations, wealthy families, state grants, mental health money managed by the county government, and infrastructure financing districts.

Many of the perceptions of housing for homeless people are based on outdated conceptions of public housing in the 1980s, Stratman said.

“I think the stigma around permanent supportive housing is Section 8 housing from the 80s. And it’s just not the case,” she said.

So last year, the association took local city leaders on tours of modern permanent supportive housing to help them understand what it looks like and who it serves.

Stratman cited local projects, like Potter’s Lane in unincorporated Midway City, that have been widely viewed as successful.

And last month, the association took a group of 50 people from OC, mostly elected officials and city managers, to San Antonio, Texas for 36 hours to learn about a nationally-recognized homeless services center called Haven for Hope.

The group toured Haven for Hope, and spoke with the mayor who helped get it off the ground, San Antonio’s current mayor, and private founders who donated millions for the effort, Stratman said.

“It was powerful,” Stratman said. She and others knew that coming out of that trip they had momentum leading into the Feb. 15 dinner meeting where cities were asked to step up.

As for how the new housing would be paid for, the idea is to leverage local money to make local housing projects competitive for state grants and federal tax credits.

There’s “a significant amount of state money” that will be rolling out in the coming months, Stratman said, adding local officials in Orange County need to prepare a strong plan and seek those dollars.

Bill Taormina, a wealthy Anaheim businessman, told attendees of the Feb. 15 dinner that he and others were working to raise $100 million for homelessness efforts from Orange County families.

“There’s a groundswell of opposition to doing nothing” about homelessness, said Taormina, who in the 1980s inherited a large trash hauling company that had the city of Anaheim’s exclusive waste hauling contract.

Taormina said he and Dan Young, a former homebuilding executive at the Irvine Company, met with Carter in his chambers earlier that day about homelessness efforts.

The federal judge said “he’s gonna watch over us, he’s gonna make sure that this action takes place, and he’s gonna clear obstacles,” Taormina said.

Regarding the fundraising effort, Taormina said: “Our mission statement is to have 50 Orange County legacy families put $2 million each in a conduit financing program to provide $100 million dollars, to [leverage] up to $300-500 million dollars.”

“I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” he added. “I will stand 50 Orange County legacy families in the front of this room within 30 days of the time that that [business] plan is complete, and the money – the seed money – will be there.”

The UC Irvine cost study found the savings would come largely because permanent supportive housing significantly reduces the massive cost of hospitalizing and jailing people who have been on the streets for a long time.

The researchers found those costs drop so significantly when long-term homeless people are provided housing with health services – known as permanent supportive housing – that it costs taxpayers less overall even when factoring the costs for housing and services.

Further momentum around the housing effort could come this week, when the United Way launches a campaign among top Orange County leaders in business, philanthropy, government and faith groups to “long-term, sustainable solutions to reduce homelessness.”

The initiative, “United to End Homelessness,” will utilize best practices and insights from an Orlando, Florida campaign known as “Rethink Homelessness,” which United Way says reduced homelessness in that community by 50 percent.

The OC campaign is scheduled to be launched at a Wednesday morning event where local leaders will hear from officials who led the Orlando effort.

Regarding the effort to raise $100 million from local families, Stratman said Taormina “has the ability through his network and his peer groups to put that money on the table.”

Taormina told the cities’ association that if it develops a business plan that people can invest in, they will invest.

“That $100 million becomes our self-help money,” Stratman said.

Lots of people are now coming to the table and saying “we want to solve this,” she added.

“We all agree on the problem,” Stratman said. The focus now, she said, is on solutions.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him

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