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As encampments balloon in OC amid the ongoing pandemic, homeless people and advocates say they’re being left in limbo as the county looks at ending its Project Toolbelt assistance program that helps people find – and pay for – shelter and housing.

The program is scheduled to end at the end of April unless more external funding is found, according to county officials.

“I wouldn’t have any housing anymore” if Toolbelt ends, said Jud Lohmeyer, who is staying at an Irvine motel serving as a shelter.

“When they had Roomkey, they offered me a spot at the friendship shelter on Laguna Canyon, which of course is a congregate [shelter]. And as you guys reported 400 people caught Covid in the shelters in Orange County. So that didn’t go so well.”

At the same time, the county is coming under criticism for declining to fully re-start its pandemic motel program for homeless people, Project Roomkey, which the federal government is now offering to cover 100% of the costs for through September.

“The County choice to ignore state and federal funding priorities and repeatedly threaten our most vulnerable seniors with return to the street does ongoing and substantial harm,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents local homeless people in ongoing federal civil rights lawsuits.

“People are forced to live in a state  of constant fear that they will be forced back into parks during a deadly global pandemic, she said.

“Even worse, they know the county choice demonstrates complete disregard for their lives.”

The county health officials who oversee homeless programs, Dr. Clayton Chau and Jason Austin, declined to respond to such concerns.

But Austin said the county continues to offer a narrower version of the Roomkey motel program, for homeless people who have tested positive for Covid or have symptoms.

The Toolbelt program was the county’s much-touted replacement for the former Roomkey motels for homeless people who were vulnerable to Covid but weren’t yet sick.

As of late February, the Toolbelt program had placed 203 people in permanent housing and 290 in temporary shelter like hotel rooms, according to Austin.

About 270 homeless people were actively working with Toolbelt’s case managers on efforts like getting jobs and disability support to help them be able to pay for housing, Austin added.

The county is relying on outside state and federal funding for Toolbelt, and the program is slated to end when those end, Austin said, adding that he and his team have been trying to extend it.

Lisa Bartlett, the county supervisor who represents south county, said her understanding is the state is the one winding down the Toolbelt program.

“This program has been extremely helpful for Orange County because it provided the means to expand our inventory of permanent supportive housing and programs for the homeless population,” Bartlett said in a text message to Voice of OC.

“It is my hope that the State considers other similar programs in the future so that counties can provide much needed assistance to a very vulnerable population with the goal of helping people turn their lives around through stable housing with wrap around services.”

Don Wagner – the supervisor who represents Irvine, Orange and other northeast cities – said his understanding is Austin is correct about Toolbelt winding down at the end of April unless more funding is available.

“If there is a funding mechanism in place, we’ll certainly look at [extending it]. But I’m less concerned that we’re going to suddenly see people losing shelter,” Wagner told Voice of OC in an interview last week.

“We stood up [Project] Home Key back during the pandemic to deal with the congregate living situations, give people the space necessary, and we’re now seeing those concerns – with the passing of the surge and with the increase of vaccines – less need for those tools,” he added.

“So the question will be, do we need it, Toolbelt? Or are we past the need? And that’s a question we’ll have to evaluate once we get to the end of it,” Wagner said. “It’s certainly my hope that we don’t need it to the extent in the future that we did in the past.”

Advocates like Weitzman say the county is leaving homeless people in a precarious position.

“While cities are passing parking bans to forcibly relocate those living in cars, and city managers are publicly stating they plan to force anyone who doesn’t enter shelter out of the city, and shelters are reporting record high covid outbreaks because, as Dr. Chau says, they are unavoidable in congregate settings, our community disregard for the lives of our seniors is appalling,” Weitzman said.

“Our leadership must do better. If we have millions of dollars for outdoor restaurant heaters and secret contracts, surely we can accept available funding to keep our seniors safe,” she added.

People who are still in the Toolbelt program, she said, “have successfully completed the full lockdown version of Roomkey, they have successfully engaged in case management, they have been model residents at their placements. We know this because so many others were already sent back to the street when their placement motel alleged they smoked a cigarette in a room or offended a staff person.”

“After all the hard work they have done to make it this far, it is a disgrace that they receive what amounts to a 30 day eviction notice during a national moratorium on evictions because the County can’t be bothered to use available funds like so many other counties have done.”

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

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