U.S. District Court Judge David O Carter this past week gave Orange County’s homelessness programs something they have been sorely lacking for more than a decade.
By most accounts, county officials were unprepared when Carter hit them with tons of questions in court last week about how they administer federal and state monies entrusted to them as a pass-through agency to combat homelessness.
Indeed, that’s because County of Orange officials have historically been all over the place when it comes to homelessness.
Supervisors were poised to evict hundreds of homeless living in illegal encampments along the Santa Ana River last week, saying publicly their surveys indicated most didn’t want help.
Yet after public law advocates sued and Judge Carter stepped in to force a humane eviction that was respectful of constitutional rights, hundreds sought help.
Carter has been a regular presence on the front lines.
His leadership – respectfully challenging both sides to work together – also has resulted in a flurry of activity from the County (more than I’ve ever seen) in terms of figuring out how to offer services and housing to people facing really challenging life circumstances.
They’ve come up with the idea of motel vouchers, a few campground-type lots and there’s even talk about developing sites like the state-owned Fairview Development Center in Costa Mesa and developing smaller housing projects with groups like the Ilumination Foundation and Jamboree Housing.
At last count, nearly 120 people from the riverbed have been moved into motels and signed up for case work help.
But for the hundreds who remain, it’s getting sticky.
Some call it a "cluster fuck."
That’s because there’s still no real plan but mainly a scramble to avoid a court overseer.
Now, I’m sure it’s challenging to get motel owners to step up for this kind of duty and the officials I talk to keep avoiding what happens after the month-long hotel vouchers run out.
In our latest On OC podcast, Ilumination Foundation Executive Director Paul Leon wonders whether spreading out so many homeless will actually make it tougher for case workers to stay connected with their clients, who Leon reminds me only have a life expectancy of about 48 years of age.
Ironically, county officials are now critical of Carter's deadline (as if he came up with the idea of evictions) and argue it’s too soon and there may be a need for extensions or a different approach.
Carter is bringing both sides together this morning to see where things stand and where we go from here.
From all accounts, he’s done a solid job of leading both sides to a solution and most people I talk to want him to stay engaged.
That’s because this process is, again, clearly showing that the County of Orange has no strategy on homelessness.
County officials point to a slew of recent initiatives but they don’t really have good answers as to why they stood around for most of the past decade and just watched an explosion of hopelessness and homelessness go on full public display at our civic buildings, sports venues, parks, libraries and flood control channels.
Now Carter has hit county supervisors with real questions about the stockpiling of state mental health funds that Voice of OC has been reporting about since 2015 and also asked about Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s own recent public statements about how the county isn’t fully spending homelessness dollars.
It’s time for a real audit of homelessness spending at the County of Orange.
City leaders in both Anaheim and Santa Ana (the most impacted by homeless encampments) are starting to publicly question whether they should take legal action against the county given a perceived lack of regional leadership and spending on the issue.
Most county supervisors run from this discussion about their lack of spending and specific programs but Supervisor Lisa Bartlett to her credit did engage and pushed back on the premise in an interview saying she believes Orange County “is ahead of most counties with regard to addressing the issues of the homeless.”
Bartlett, who represents Orange County at the state association of counties, says all county elected leaders are grappling with the homelessness crisis.
“We’re being very proactive as a county,” Bartlett said. “I’m very proud of our efforts.”
Pointing to the two most recent facilities – like Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim and the Courtyard Transition Center at the downtown Santa Ana civic center, which I would argue were erected around crassly political calendars, Bartlett argues “Orange County got our facilities up and running in record time.”
That kind of radical reshaping of political reality is why you need a real audit of what’s been going on with homelessness spending at the County of Orange and maybe a permanent overseer.
Who knows, maybe Carter can be convinced to stick around to follow the money.