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About a year ago, and in the early face of the Coronavirus pandemic, Placentia officials booted up a new, referral-only, 100-bed shelter to serve homeless people in north Orange County cities and connect them with housing. 

Today, city officials will commemorate the shelter’s one-year anniversary, slated to be live streamed on Facebook from 1 to 2 p.m. 

In the time since Placentia’s shelter opened, less restrictive walk-in shelters elsewhere in Orange County have disappeared — leaving places like a Mexican cultural center in Santa Ana to become homeless encampments.

And some advocates say housing — not shelters — are the real solution to the regional issue.

All the while, a recent Chapman University survey found that housing and homelessness rank highest among what Orange County residents consider to be the region’s most pressing issues. 

The Placentia shelter, which officials and People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) — the nonprofit that operates it — call a “Navigational Center,” doesn’t accept walk-ups, but does allow people to leave if they choose, said PATH spokesman Tyler Renner.

Placentia officials are now looking back on what their shelter’s efforts have achieved for their region, as a result of a facility they say connects people to health resources, counseling and puts people in permanent housing.   

People Assisting the Homeless Staff inside the shelter prior to the opening of the navigation center last year. Credit: Courtesy of PATH

Shelter operators said they’ve helped 179 homeless people off the streets and found permanent housing situations for 31 people while navigating the Coronavirus pandemic, according to People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). 

Placentia Police Capt. Mike Butts said he didn’t immediately have data on calls for service before and after the shelter opened, but said the problem overall “has been reduced because [homeless people] are under different conditions now. They have access to resources they wouldn’t have otherwise had on the street.”

“The work we do now we’d much rather do than deal with the problems of too many people living in a confined space (like the former Crowther Avenue encampment),” Butts said, adding the issue is much more “manageable with us supporting the navigation center, than working with the problems that come out of the encampment.”

Butts also said the shelter has changed the way his department is tracking homelessness in the city:

“Since we opened the navigation center we have done a much better job of tracking homeless calls for service because the city is now in the business of having a center and hosting it. We are paying much more attention to statistical data regarding the homeless.” 

Placentia Mayor Craig Green said complaints from residents have dropped. 

He said the city used to get complaints “almost every day” about the large homeless encampment along Crowther Avenue. 

“The complaints have gone down,” Green said. “Staff really worked hard to develop this navigation center. It’s working like a champ. Does it create any other issues? I don’t think so. It gets people off the street, out of the cold, out of the elements.”

He said it’s also saving the city money: “We had to hire a hazmat company to do clean up once. It was a one time expense from that standpoint, but we don’t have to deal with that now, with this navigation center.”

The center services homeless people on the streets of 13 cities: Placentia, Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Cypress, Fullerton, La Habra, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Orange, Villa Park, Stanton, and Yorba Linda. 

Each city spends more than $130,000 each to fund it annually. The shelter has an operating budget of $1.6 million per year, according to Renner.

Anaheim gets services from the center, but doesn’t contribute to its funding. The city has its own navigation center.

On top of finding permanent housing for people, “we have been able to provide job-training and employment for some of our folks,” said Karen Crocker, the city’s director of community services.

The Need for Affordable Housing

The navigation center’s main purpose is to be a pathway to housing for homeless folks and also provides mental health services referrals to the county’s health care agency, according to Renner.

Some advocates say more housing is needed.

“A navigation center is simply one section of a bridge to housing. Without having actual housing navigators in there who are working one on one with people experiencing homelessness, then a navigation center basically doesn’t serve any purpose it’s just another way of shuffling people around the only true solution to homelessness which is housing,” said Jeanine Robbins, an advocate for the People’s Homeless Task Force.

Renner said the lack of housing options in California is an obstacle for them.

“The challenge we have across the state of California particularly in Orange County is the lack of affordable housing,” he said. “Orange County, like most regions across the state, is just not building enough housing at prices that people can afford.”

The state is putting pressure on cities to zone for more affordable housing in the next few years — a task that many cities in the county have pushed back on including Fullerton, Los Alamitos and Yorba Linda

People Assisting the Homeless are taking it upon themselves to create more affordable housing and converting hotels or motels into living spaces. They’re setting up sites like this in Los Angeles and working with other cities to address their immediate housing needs when it comes to homelessness.

They’re hoping to build affordable homes in Orange County.

“For Placentia and North Orange County that was simply getting people off the streets so they have somewhere to go until they’re connected to a housing opportunity,” Renner said. “In Orange County, we’re really starting with interim housing with the eventual goal of potentially doing some housing projects.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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