Broad-Based Campaign Launched to Help and House Homeless People in Orange County

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Formerly homeless man Robert Morse, also known as “Santa Bob,” receives a standing ovation after speaking at Wednesday's United Way kickoff event.

A broad-based campaign was launched Wednesday to bring together Orange County’s leaders in business, philanthropy, faith, and government around ending homelessness, including providing housing with support services for homeless people who have been on the streets for years.

The effort, led by Orange County United Way, piggybacks on a study it commissioned from UC Irvine that found it costs the public less to house long-term homeless people with wraparound health services than keep them on the streets where they often rotate in and out of expensive stays at emergency rooms and jails.

The campaign is in close collaboration with an effort by Orange County’s association of cities to double the number of housing units with supportive services for homeless people – from 2,700 to 5,400 – within the next three years or less, with the amount of housing divided proportionally by city population.

If it comes to fruition, that would be enough to house more than half of the 4,792 homeless people counted in Orange County last year during the most recent official count.

At the United Way’s kickoff event Wednesday at UC Irvine, dozens of local leaders in the private and public sector heard calls to action from the United Way, Irvine’s mayor, the university’s chancellor, and leaders in and around Orlando, Florida who led an effort there that cut homelessness in half since 2013.

“We were here, where you guys are today [in Orange County, California]. But we came together in a crisis, leaders working together, and we were able to help a lot of people in need,” said Andrae Bailey, who helped lead the Orlando-area effort as chair of Central Florida’s homelessness commission.

A key part of that success, he said, was officials and service providers acknowledging their past efforts weren’t working.

“If you commit yourselves to coming together as a community and bringing leaders together to partner with government – government cannot and will not do this by itself, with all the money in the world, government can’t. That’s not how government works. But if you come together and support your government, work with them, and bring the business community, faith leaders and philanthropy together, you can absolutely solve street homelessness.”

Orlando-area officials said they moved nearly 3,400 homeless people into permanent housing during 2015, according to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.

“This is not about tossing them behind the door so we don’t have to see them,” said David Swanson, an Orlando pastor who has helped lead homelessness efforts, in a speech at Wednesday’s kickoff event.

“This is about actually giving to them a home that helps restore their sense of personhood, their sense of humanity. And you’ll find they will rise to the occasion, and they will make better versions of themselves, if they gain confidence because you demonstrated your belief in them.”

Locally in Orange County, more than 40 local leaders in business, health care, local government and professional sports teams have said they’re on board with the United Way effort, according to the nonprofit group, which listed people and organizations serving on a “Leadership Council” for the campaign.

The OC campaign is called “United to End Homelessness,” and the council is scheduled to hold its first meeting this month, to develop specific goals.

“It’s time that we unite to seek long-term and effective solutions to house the least among us,” said Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, one of the largest churches in the United States, in a video address to the kickoff event.

“We are 100 percent committed to this campaign. And I want to ask each of you here today: Are you with us? Are you in? Join us today.” The attendees erupted into applause.

Sue Parks, the new CEO of Orange County United Way, said the group would work to overcome hurdles that stand in the way of ending homelessness.

Community members will be “coming together and working collectively and filing the gaps and fixing the processes and getting the policies – whatever we need – together,” Parks told attendees. “We learned [from] Orlando it’s not necessarily easy, but it can be done!”

The UC Irvine study found that, contrary to many people’s perceptions, the vast majority of OC’s homeless are American citizens and longtime Orange County residents, and the existing costs of managing homelessness already is “tremendously expensive” for the public through county, cities and health care system, said the university’s chancellor, Howard Gillman.

“Conversely, it’s less expensive to house the homeless than to manage their homelessness,” Gillman said in a speech at Wednesday’s kickoff event.

“The first step toward resolving a problem is to see it  – to see it clearly and honestly, to set aside cultural stereotype, social prejudice…and instead to shine a light, to illuminate the issue and to enlighten the people. To shine a light that can act as a beacon, knowing that this beacon will attract all people of good will,” he added.

“We are gathered here today because our [homeless] friends and neighbors need our help. And they are deserving of our help. And we’re gonna help because we are a smart, and decent, and caring community.”

“This task requires all hands on deck, and this is what all hands on deck looks like.”

(Click here to watch a video of Wednesday’s kickoff event.)

The United Way and cities’ association campaigns have been welcomed by homeless advocates, who say they look forward to seeing the talk at Wednesday’s event turn into action.

“I think it was great to see Orange County, Florida’s excitement about having a health care [based-approach] rather than a law enforcement approach, and I look forward to seeing how Orange County, California [steps] up the same way Florida described…to look at who needs the help and” help them succeed “rather than expecting them to figure out” how to navigate services, said Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney for homeless people here, who attended the Wednesday event. (Orlando is in Orange County, Florida.)

Weitzman filed the recent federal court case that prompted U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter to press her and county officials to collaborate on relocating over 700 homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed into motels while next steps are evaluated.

The Florida speakers emphasized “rethinking the way we think about homelessness and addressing homelessness, to be in line with all of the research, [which] was really successful there. And I hope we’ll be successful here,” Weitzman said.

“It’s really exciting to see the business community and the cities all come together to address this issue, to acknowledge that the housing first approach is the answer, not law enforcement. But the next step is the action,” she said. “This was the talk, now we need to see that action.”

In Orange County, “we have the land and we have the resources,” Weitzman said. The businesses are a “great addition,” but county and city leaders need to “step up” to use those resources to address the situation, she said. “As we’ve seen in the last two weeks at the riverbed, this has to be collaborative.”

A website for the campaign, unitedtoendhomelessness.org, asks community members to sign a pledge to collaborate on solving homelessness. The pledge includes agreeing that “those in our community suffering from debilitating and disabling conditions who are chronically homeless should be provided with housing and all necessary support.”

The “leadership council” organizing committee’s meeting next month is expected to be closed to the public and news media. United Way officials say an update will be issued out of the meeting as well as on a quarterly basis going forward.

In Utah, which has been widely cited as a success story in reducing homelessness, annual reports provide updates on data, progress, and remaining challenges in addressing homelessness. Similar reports are issued in Florida.

In the OC housing effort, the Association of California Cities – Orange County is focusing on the public sector – namely, getting government officials on board for the housing goals. And the United Way, while working with the cities’ association, is spearheading an effort to get the private sector on board, including business leaders, hospitals, wealthy donors, faith leaders and elected officials.

Homelessness is a problem that “everybody knows needs to be tackled, and needs to be tackled in this way: with all of us coming together to find [a] solution,” Irvine Mayor Don Wagner told attendees.

“I could not be prouder to…be involved in this effort, and to pledge the full support of the city of Irvine to find genuine solutions to the homeless crisis here in Orange County.”

Up until now, Orange County’s local elected officials have often opposed proposals to host homeless services and shelter in their communities. Irvine officials pushed back last year against a county government effort to use 100 acres of county-owned land in the city for temporary homeless housing, despite the land already being zoned by the city to allow homeless shelters.

The county’s approach to a shelter it owns in Anaheim is to not allow homeless people to walk in or out of the shelter, with entries and exits instead being handled by shuttles to designated pickup and drop-off points elsewhere. County officials have said there have been no complaints about that shelter, Bridges at Kraemer Place, negatively impacting the surrounding area.

Among those taking a leadership role in the OC homeless housing effort are Dan Young, a former Irvine Company real estate executive, who has been identifying potential properties for housing and helpful legislation, Parks said.

Eight elected officials attended the kickoff event: Wagner, OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez, Huntington Beach council members Patrick Brenden and Barbara Delgleize, Costa Mesa council members Katrina Foley and John Stephens, and Fullerton Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald.

One major reason cited for why homeless housing projects haven’t been built in Orange County is elected officials’ concerns about pushback from constituents who oppose projects. Constituents have expressed concerns about negative impacts to the surrounding area and the use of taxpayer money to provide homes to people perceived as not wanting to work.

The UCI cost study, meanwhile, found a major drop in crime when homeless people are provided housing with support services. The average number of times a homeless person on the streets is arrested drops from roughly twice per year to near zero when they’re in permanent supportive housing, according to the study.

Weitzman, the attorney for homeless people, said homeless people at the Santa Ana River proved they were willing to accept help and improve their lives when they were treated with dignity and respect.

She noted one of the Florida speakers at Wednesday’s event said “that when [homeless people] were offered something that they thought might work, in a way that treated them with dignity, almost everyone was excited for the opportunity.”

That was something seen locally with Judge Carter, Weitzman said, adding he “was treating people with dignity and humanity, and showing the way we go about treating the homeless community.”

Attendees of Wednesday’s kickoff emphasized that elected officials are important decision makers, but couldn’t be counted on to solve homelessness on their own.

“It was a very needed conversation…but obviously there’s only [a small number of] elected officials” here, and more should be part of the effort, said Martinez, the Santa Ana councilwoman. She also questioned whether city council members across the county will be “willing to step up” and grant the land-use approvals for homeless housing projects.

Gillman, the UC Irvine chancellor, also noted the limits of politics, and issued a call to action for the whole community to step up.

“At a time when formal politics sometimes proves itself not so useful as a mechanism for solving real problems, or for advancing human values, or for channeling civic pride, let’s commit ourselves to being an example to this great American republic,” Gillman said.

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