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The man who led one of the most successful U.S. efforts to address homelessness has outlined a series of specific steps he said Orange County and other communities could take.
Among his recommendations: have a “champion” bring together community and government leaders to break through barriers and urgently move toward solutions; have a “highly collaborative” approach with a clear vision and measurable outcomes; and be compassionate for each homeless “brother and sister.”
“You have a number [of chronically homeless people where] you can do it. Really,” Lloyd Pendleton, the former director of Utah’s homelessness efforts, said during an April 5 conference at Chapman University.
Orange County had about 900 chronically homeless people as of the latest count, compared to about 17,500 in Los Angeles County. Overall, Orange County counted a total of 2,584 unsheltered homeless people in January 2017. But the numbers have grown substantially in certain areas, including Santa Ana, which counted more than double as many unsheltered homeless people on March 31 – or 1,030 people – as the 466 people the county found in the city during its January 2017 count.
Pendleton, a former executive with Ford Motor Co. and the Mormon Church, oversaw a major reduction in long-term homelessness in Utah from 2004 to 2015. His Chapman speech was to more than 100 Orange County community members, including leaders in business, government, and advocacy, who attended the all-day conference on housing and homelessness.
Pendleton said federal Judge David O. Carter has emerged as Orange County’s main “champion” on homelessness. And he called on local mayors and other elected officials to follow Carter’s lead by getting to know homeless people and learning what it would take for them to get off the streets.
Carter is “walking along there, meeting homeless individuals, seeing them eyeball to eyeball. Go out with him! Meet your homeless citizens! They’re human beings. Get over this idea [of] ‘not in my backyard.’ They’re your citizens!” Pendleton said, to loud applause from the audience.
Pendleton’s speech came as Orange County grapples with a growing homeless population and a severe shortage of shelter and affordable housing for them.
Nationally and locally, Utah has been cited by officials, service providers, advocates, and national media outlets as a success in helping long-term, or “chronic,” homeless people with disabilities get off the streets.
The percentage reduction in chronic homelessness Utah experienced is debated. But state officials say they’ve housed at least 900 people who were chronically homeless in recent years, which is equivalent to roughly half of the total chronically homeless population counted statewide before the housing program.
Pendleton said that success came largely through providing affordable housing with wraparound support for health and employment, and relationship-building with community members.
Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country, according to the polling company Gallup, and has roughly the same number of residents as Orange County: 3.1 million.
Before Pendleton spoke, UC Irvine professor David Snow explained the findings of a large-scale study the university released last year on homelessness in Orange County, which involved hundreds of homeless people.
Snow said 32 percent of homeless people reported suffering sexual or physical abuse as children, and 42 percent had a parent or adult household member with a drug or alcohol abuse problem. Eighteen percent were formerly in foster care, which is much higher than the overall population, he said.
“To say that homelessness is just [these] are all druggies” is “wrongheaded” and “certainly not consistent with a drilled-down investigation of the causes of homelessness,” Snow said.
Snow also said there’s evidence “homelessness grows in the gap between the cost and availability of housing and the availability of income, wages to access that housing.”
The UCI study found the overall cost to society is significantly less when chronically homeless people move from the streets into housing with support services – dropping from $98,000 a year to $51,000, mostly from fewer emergency room visits.
“We’d save a lot of money by putting people…homeless people in housing,” Snow said. Arrests decline to zero, and people become less depressed, which makes them more employable, he added.
Several mayors attended the conference earlier in the day for the housing panels, including Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, Garden Grove Mayor Steve Jones and Tustin Mayor Al Murray, but they didn’t stay for the 2 p.m. panel on homelessness.
Four elected officials were present for the homelessness panel: Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno, Costa Mesa Councilman John Stephens, Newport Beach Councilman Will O’Neill, and Villa Park Mayor Robert Collacott. Also present was Scott Carpenter, the district director for state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa).
None of the five county supervisors, who control hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state money for homelessness and mental health, attended the homelessness session or the overall housing conference.
The county government’s point person on homelessness, Susan Price, also did not attend. She didn’t respond to a text message asking why.
Housing With Support Services
One major concern from local elected officials is pushback from residents who fear crime will come with homeless shelters and housing. Stephens, the Costa Mesa councilman, asked how elected officials should respond.
Snow, the UCI professor, pointed to his study of hundreds of homeless people in Orange County. It found arrests declined to zero when people moved from the streets into housing with support services.
“When you house people, the [rate] of their criminality will decline,” Snow said.
The community, Pendleton emphasized, should explain the “why” of their efforts to reduce homelessness. “I see our homeless citizens as truly my brother and sister. Truly my brother and sister, spiritually…This is a calling to me. Not a job.”
He said a “high percentage” of homeless people “have had very traumatic PTSD, traumatic brain injury” as children. “Therefore their brain doesn’t develop, and they can’t function in school…they drop out, get with a crowd that’s kind of maybe less productive.”
“There’s a plethora of reasons, [a] tremendous amount of abuse. So there’s a very valid reason they are where they are. And we’d probably be where they are if we were raised in those circumstances. So we’ve got to get out of this condemning-and-judging bit first, may I suggest,” Pendleton said.
“They are our homeless citizens. They’re not ‘those people.’ They’re our homeless citizens. And there’s a good chance that in 10 years, four or five of you in this room will be homeless.”
“We know why people are homeless. We know the solution,” Pendleton added. “Housing. It ain’t complicated. The solution is housing.”
There are various types of interventions for different types of homeless people, he said: “Permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless,” “rapid re-housing for the families,” and treatment programs. “There’s all kinds of interventions that we know that work,” he said, including faith-based options that work for many people.
As a conservative, Pendleton said he was skeptical of the “housing first” approach when he learned about it at a 2003 conference in New York. But he said he saw it work when Utah implemented a 17-person pilot program.
“We took the most challenging [homeless people] we could find, and we put them into scattered-site housing while we built our first 100 units” of permanent supportive housing, Pendleton said.
“Twenty-two months later all 17 were still housed. We [found] the most challenging ones we could find – [the] most mentally ill and most drug-addicted, and alcohol and [substance] abuse – and we put them into scattered site housing. All 17 were still housed 22 months later. We became believers.”
The approach was similar to one in Orange County by the Illumination Foundation, whose Chronic Care Plus program housed 38 of the most-expensive homeless utilizers of hospitals, with health and other support services.
The program more than paid for itself through reduced hospital visits and nearly everyone remained in the housing, according to the foundation’s president and CEO, Paul Leon. The foundation later received an expanded grant from local hospitals to expand it to 108 people, in a program known as Street2Home.
Key to Utah’s success, Pendleton said, is support services, including case managers who help homeless people address health and addiction issues and help them find job training and employment. Also important, he said, is the involvement of volunteers from local faith groups – including churches, synagogues, and mosques – who spend time getting to know the formerly homeless people and build friendships with them.
The housing isn’t provided for free in Utah, according to Pendleton. The formerly homeless people who live there are charged a rent they’re able to afford, he said, and they can be evicted if they don’t pay – which he said provides accountability.
Pendleton said there were three main reasons Utah was successful: “We had champions, we’re highly collaborative, and we have a high compassion for our homeless citizens.”
In his travels around the country, Pendleton said, “I’m quite stunned at how few champions there are around this issue at a high enough level to make it happen. There are wonderful champions at the lower level, [who] work your hearts out for a small amount of money, and you care. But not a lot gets done that needs to be done.”
“Mayors, are you listening?” Pendleton asked. “You’re a key part.”
Regarding leadership, Pendleton said political leaders come and go from their positions, and that it’s important to have a consistent vision, message and leadership.
That’s why it’s crucial, he said, to have a “champion” – someone who takes the lead in getting the various government and community leaders to act, and lasts through the various turnovers of politicians.
He listed what he considers the characteristics of such a champion: “They have energy, they begin and finish projects, stamina, staying power, enthusiasm, sense of humor…They have a bias to act, focused on solutions…Sense of urgency. Opportunity-driven.”
Other characteristics he cited: “Results-oriented. Outcome, not process, matters most. Networking, capacity-building are the means, not the end….[A] clear and compelling vision. Chart and use milestones. Personal responsibility. Did I screw up [at times]? Sure…We could have done that more effectively. You don’t blame people.”
“And there are no mistakes in my [opinion], because when you make a mistake you learn the most,” Pendleton said. “That’s what life is about, is learning about who you are and what you can do and what’s effective.”
It was key to “create a common vision,” Pendleton said. “We had one vision for the whole state,” including political leaders, homeless service providers, and business leaders.
That single vision for Utah is: “Everyone has access to safe, decent, affordable housing with the needed resources and supports for self-sufficiency and well being.” Utah still has a long way to go, according to news reports, but has made major strides in reducing chronic homelessness, according to official counts.
Pendleton said it’s important to build a vision that establishes housing as a “major step” in the process, but that it’s not the end. Helping people remain housed is key, he said.
“A sense of urgency,” was also important, Pendleton said. Utah put together a committee within two weeks, and within about three months had the pilot project up and running to get the first 17 people housed.
Also important to the Utah efforts was creating a committee of “champions” from a diverse cross section of the community to collaborate on solutions, Pendleton said. It’s important such a committee have people with a “diversity” of viewpoints, including those of homeless advocates, he said.
The stakeholders who should be at the table, he said, include philanthropic funders, business leaders, homeless service providers, government leaders, citizens, advocates, police, and faith-based groups. Bringing them together is important for breaking through the “silos” that often prevent action, he said.
Pendleton said California has a problem because of its “weak mayor system,” in which mayors have essentially the same power as other council members and the position typically rotates each year. The same is true for county boards of supervisors and their chairpersons.
“Therefore nobody’s in charge. In my view,” Pendleton said. One of the advantages he said he had in Utah was the lieutenant governor appointed him as the point person on homelessness, which led city and county officials to take him more seriously.
Orange County now has its “champion,” Pendleton said. “You are so lucky…Your Batman showed up: a judge!” he said, referring to Carter.
“Now, I don’t agree that it should be done…through the courts. But at least somebody’s stepping up…and making something happen. Political leaders: please, please, rally behind him.”
“It’s doable,” Pendleton said of reducing homelessness. “But without a champion, I see it won’t be accomplished to the level it can be accomplished. Find that champion – and you have one that’s being made,” he said. “I’m excited for you, really. That’s exciting.”
“It can be done,” he added. “Have one vision you all work on – all 34 cities and the county…[and] rally around it.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.