Grand Jury to Cities & County: Stop Fighting, Form Regional Homelessness Board

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Homeless people living on the Santa Ana Riverbed line up for motel rooms offered by the county, after U.S. District Judge David O. Carter insisted the people be sheltered after the county evicted them. Feb. 20, 2018.

It’s time for the county and cities to stop the infighting that’s plagued recent efforts to build housing and shelters and instead form a regional body to address homelessness, according to an Orange County Grand Jury report released Thursday.

The Grand Jury identified numerous “roadblocks” to efforts to alleviate homelessness, singling out a lack of “political will” as the most significant. Other roadblocks, they said, include NIMBYism, the need for better collaboration to obtain funding, identification of sites to build the homes, and residents’ fear of attracting more homeless people.

“However, the degree of finger-pointing and lack of trust that exists between the County and the cities, and even among the cities themselves, makes it extremely difficult to address any of the impediments identified in this report,” it stated.

The May 31 report comes ahead of a federal court meeting scheduled for June 13, which stems from two civil rights lawsuits over evictions of homeless people from the Santa Ana River Trail. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter has repeatedly said the existing shelters are over capacity and told county and city officials to find sites for shelters. At a May 25 court hearing, Carter said he expects cities to identify three sites for new shelters – one in each of three zones within the county – at the June 13 court meeting.

While commending the county on its opening of homeless shelters in Anaheim and Santa Ana, the grand jurors were critical of how the county Board of Supervisors has handled the homeless situation.

“While all these activities were certainly necessary, they appeared driven more by the County operating in crisis mode rather than from any strategic plan developed to address the homeless housing shortage. The homeless population at the [Santa Ana River] was allowed to grow to over 700 people while the County and the cities debated ownership of the issue,” the report states.

The five county supervisors did not return phone messages seeking comment. A county spokeswoman said supervisors will formally respond to the report by August, the deadline for government agencies to reply to grand jury findings.

Three officials who have been leading city-level discussions on homelessness – Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff – said they agreed with the grand jury’s findings: that permanent supportive housing is effective, that there needs to be political will to make it happen, and there should be a regional body to oversee implementation.

“On the political will [issue], I’m gonna say it clearly has been lacking in the past and is now something that with Judge Carter’s efforts you’re beginning to see more of. We’re seeing it with the south county mayors. We’re seeing it in fact with the county and their effort,” said Wagner, who has been leading south county mayors’ discussions around potential new homeless shelter sites.

“The grand jury is undoubtedly right. The political will is necessary. The good news is, we’re seeing it now” more than in the past, he said.

“I agree with the grand jury” about permanent supportive housing being effective, Wagner added, saying Irvine and south county cities also “recognize it as effective.”

Tait agreed that it’s a regional problem that needs a multi-city approach.

“I think the idea has real merit. This idea of, this is a regional problem,” and it “probably … can be served better by [having] all cities participating,” Tait said in a voicemail Thursday evening. “There’s 5,000 [homeless] people in a county of 3.2 million [people]. All cities working together should be able to solve this problem if everyone does their part, every city does their part.”

“All that makes sense to me,” Kiff, who has helped lead homelessness discussions among city managers, said of the grand jury’s main findings regarding permanent supportive housing. “And generally I think the solution is just that – to have everybody on board, everybody does something in each community that is politically feasible in each community.”

Urging a Sept. 1 deadline to implement its recommendations, the grand jury called on the county and cities to form a regional body, such as a joint powers authority (JPA), to help “streamline” construction of permanent supportive housing by finding locations and bringing together funding sources to pay for it. This type of housing is defined as subsidized housing that provides on-site supportive services like mental health treatment, drug addiction treatment and medical services, as well as job counseling, training, and peer support from people who have successfully addressed their addiction and mental health issues.

There is an ongoing effort in the state Legislature to establish a countywide JPA, known as the Orange County Housing Trust, to develop plans and fund the construction of housing for the county’s long-term homeless population, according to a May 1 news release by Assemblyman Tom Daly (D-Anaheim) . Its governing board would consist of county and city representatives, with most seats held by city representatives. Daly Thursday amended a pending bill, AB 448, to create the Housing Trust.

“My bill establishes the Orange County Housing Trust, which will be a cooperative effort by public agencies and private philanthropists, who are united by the common goal of creating permanent supportive housing throughout Orange County,” an approach supported by the Grand Jury report, Daly said through an emailed statement from his office staff.

The Grand Jury report also found some officials don’t understand what permanent supportive housing means.

“While some city officials – both elected and city staff – have voiced strong support for [permanent supportive housing], others do not appear to understand what Permanent Supportive Housing provides and the benefits it delivers,” the grand jury wrote in its report.

Jurors said the idea conjures negative images for some officials.

“For some, [permanent supportive housing] invokes images of ‘the projects’ – those affordable housing projects constructed in the 1960s and 1970s that were negatively associated with increasing crime and perpetuating poverty,” the report stated.

The report said there is “little evidence” to support fears that affordable housing units would increase crime.

“While the Grand Jury could find no specific studies detailing crime statistics in areas within OC with [permanent supportive housing], information gathered from other areas of the country suggests that there is little evidence of an appreciable increase in crime,” the report states. “This may be due to the stabilizing effect afforded by living in a house, as well as the presence of housing support staff who can check on residents or call to report suspicious activity,” states the report.

“Studies indicated that housing values in the areas of PSH had remained stable, or had even risen,” the report continues.

After the county cleared homeless people from encampments at the riverbed and Santa Ana Civic Center, Gov. Jerry Brown, on April 11, authorized a 90-day extension of the two emergency shelters operating at the Santa Ana and Fullerton National Guard armories. Unlike the Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim or The Courtyard, in Santa Ana, people must leave the armories during the day and return in the evening. Each armory can house roughly 200 people.

The emergency shelters operating at the armories are slated to close July 16, and Carter has said people staying at the armories must be accommodated with shelter when they close.

“Cities’ reluctance to provide sites for Permanent Supportive Housing development has contributed to overcrowded emergency shelters and an increased unsheltered homeless population,” the grand jurors said in their report.

Kraemer Place and the Courtyard have been operating at maximum capacity since the riverbed evictions and Carter has been critical of the county’s attempts to put more people in the shelters.

The Board of Supervisors faced immediate public backlash when it proposed new emergency homeless shelters in Huntington Beach, Irvine and Laguna Niguel March 19. The three city councils also voted to sue the county over the plans and supervisors ultimately backed off.

The grand jury challenged claims that some homeless people are “service resistant.”

“While most providers believe there is a segment of the homeless population that will ultimately be resistant to accepting services, they estimate that segment represents a relatively small percentage of the population – perhaps in the 10-15% range,” the report reads.

Citing data from the 2017 United Way report on homelessness in Orange County, the Grand Jury said the supportive housing would help reduce overall costs on homelessness around the county.

The United Way report estimated people who continuously live on the streets cost the county $100,000 per person annually. People who stay at shelters cost $58,000 per person annually, while those who live in supportive housing cost $51,000 per person annually. Much of those costs are in hospital and other medical expense, with 10 percent of the chronically homeless population exceeding $440,000 per person annually, according to the report.

“In fact, estimates show that the average cost of caring for a chronically homeless person on the street could be cut in half if they were placed in Permanent Supportive Housing,” the grand jury wrote. “However, the supply in Orange County lags behind the need, contributing to overcrowded emergency shelters and an increased unsheltered homeless population.”

With 1,724 adult-only supportive housing beds available countywide and more than 1,000 people on a waitlist, the Grand Jury attributed the shortage of beds to the lack of a regional plan.

The 2017 Point-in-Time count, a bi-annual survey of homeless people in Orange County, found nearly 4,800 homeless people.

Similar to Carter’s insistence that a homeless shelter should be placed in each of the three “service planning areas” in Orange County, the jurors recommended supportive housing units be put in north, central and south county areas. The grand jury also supported a plan by the Association of California Cities – Orange County to distribute the housing proportionately based on each city’s population.

Additionally, the grand jury said the county should re-orient its regional homelessness meetings – known as “Service Planning Area” meetings – to focus on promoting “collaboration between cities on Permanent Supportive Housing and other housing development.”

“I think we’re all poised to jump in further,” Kiff, the Newport Beach city manager, said of the cities. “To me, once the emergency shelter need is addressed, that’s kind of a flash point for many communities. And I think once we get past the emergency shelter needs, I think each community will have a much better discussion with its residents about permanent supportive housing.”

The process of finding housing sites would move “a lot faster” if each city would look at a motel, hotel, or place with low-income requirements that could transition into permanent supportive housing, he said.

“Once the funding is there and everybody dips their foot in the pool…it will go much easier. No city” wants to be the first to jump in, he said. 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.