Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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A diverse coalition of Orange County private sector leaders has stepped up to end homelessness.

Against the backdrop of County Supervisors’ politicized, and often fumbled, attempts over the past decade to badly manage the exploding homelessness crisis in Orange County, business leaders opened a frank campaign last week with a straight assessment of past failures – such as the inability to implement rapid re-housing policies for homeless.

At last week’s kick off at the UCI Student Center, you could feel the entrepreneurial energy gathered together in the room – focused on reversing nearly $300 million in public and private sector uncoordinated spending on homelessness each year that does nothing to solve the issue but quite a lot to make it worse.

Gathered together by Orange County’s United Way and the Association of California Cities, Orange County, more than 40 executives have pledged to form a leadership council under the banner, “United to End Homelessness.”

While there weren’t a lot of local elected officials at the event, there’s talk of a regional housing plan – working through existing apartments – that could quickly move a good number of people off the streets and connect them to case management services.

The aim here is to get real leadership focused on the real systemic issues affecting the homeless population – such as a critical lack of permanent, supportive housing here in Orange County as well as switching the county’s front line response to health care and social workers instead of Sheriff’s Deputies.

Look at what happened over the past few weeks when U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter forced the county to actually let it’s public workforce do their job.

According to a public summary provided by Orange County’s Homelessness Czar Susan Price, the county’s workers at the Health Care and Social Services agencies collectively got more than 700 people connected to housing and case management services within just a few weeks.

That’s the same race car that county supervisors have kept in cruise mode for the past few years – worried that poor people might actually realize they are eligible for government programs, just like their corporate cousins.

Indeed, that’s where the discussion is sure to get tough for these private sector leaders.

One of the leadership council’s members – Disneyland – is already caught up in a nasty debate over their own approach to wages…and homelessness.

Indeed, the same day after leaving the homelessness summit in Irvine, I drove north to Anaheim’s resort district to watch something I haven’t seen in a decade of covering Orange County public affairs: a packed house, full of a half dozen unions from all over the spectrum – unveiling a united negotiation strategy against their main employer, Disneyland.

That same coalition is now calling for a minimum wage ordinance in Anaheim for companies receiving large public subsidies from the local treasury, such as, Disneyland.

Amidst a ton of local media, union members listed a host of grievances against Disney – mainly stagnant wages since 2008 – and unveiled an academic study out of Occidental College noting that 11 percent of the Disney union workforce has experienced homelessness because of weak wages.

Now Disneyland officials have criticized the study as statistically flawed and politically motivated – because it was commissioned by the resort labor union coalition – and argue they pay their workers fairly and offer solid benefits.

Yet workers like Glynn Dana or Rebekah Pedersen present a pretty grim picture of working for what they call a cheap employer.

Pederson is a make up artist at Disneyland who was profiled by the New York Times and has had at times to live out of her car while working as a make up artist. Dana joined us this week for the On OC podcast to talk about working for The Mouse, as workers like to call Disney, and also talked about experiencing homelessness as a longtime Disney worker.

Ending homelessness will force all of us to ask some uncomfortable questions about where our public resources are being steered.

Yet the more we ask uncomfortable questions, the closer we get to real solutions.

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