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Throughout the past year of the pandemic, Covid outbreaks at local homeless shelters, more homeless deaths than ever across the county and the recent shooting death of a homeless man by Sheriff’s homeless liaison officers in San Clemente, county homelessness commissioners have barely met much less solved much. Meanwhile, homeless people are dying in record numbers.

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 truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

Not surprisingly, the commissioners haven’t exactly been able to solve homelessness – which was the audacious aim back in 2012 when the body was formed by county supervisors with the goal of having things figured out by 2020. 

And that’s after a big fancy reorganization in 2018 where the same Orange County Supervisors took full control of the body arguing that putting them in charge would give the commission badly-needed focus. 

Yet despite being chaired by Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do, who won two different tight elections, in 2016 and last year running on a platform of homelessness response, the commission has barely met since last year. 

According to the commission’s own public website – something confirmed by the Health Care Agency staff – the County’s Commission to End Homelessness started canceling its meetings last year just as the pandemic took hold in March. 

Since then, local book clubs have kept a more regular meeting schedule.

According to the Commission’s public website,  meetings were canceled in March, April, June and July. There’s no cancelation notice listed for the month of May.

It took until August for commissioners to meet and the body went dark against until October of last year.

This year, the commission has yet to meet at all, according to official records.

Do didn’t respond to a request for an on-record comment and neither did most commissioners. 

Orange County Health Care Agency officials – who took over stewardship of the commission after a 2018 reorg removed the panel as a direct report to County CEO Frank Kim – avoided interviews on Tuesday seeking information about why the commission rarely meets.

They did offer a statement on what it does.

“The Commission to End Homelessness works in collaboration with local government, non-profits, community organizations, faith-based organizations, health care, public safety and other stakeholders to promote an effective response to homelessness within Orange County,” said HCA Spokeswoman Jessica Good in an emailed statement. 

While Good could not speak to why the panel rarely meets, she said note that “In place of the canceled meeting in February 2021, an update was sent to the Commission members…The update covers the COVID-19 homelessness response, opening of Yale and launch of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. 

Additionally, the Commission to End Homelessness is working on a report of the findings from the Homeless Services Mapping Survey, which was conducted to better understand the services and resources in the community for those experiencing homelessness.”

While HCA had a billion dollars worth of public executives come up with the explanation after a full day of preparation, County Supervisor Doug Chaffee – who is recovering from knee surgery – had a much more frank, straightforward and quick answer. 

“I’m not clear what its function is just yet,” said Chaffee, who was appointed as Vice Chair for the Commission earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the parking lot at the El Centro community center in Santa Ana – where Voice of OC rents office space – and other areas around the county civic center in Santa Ana like nearby community gardens have turned into makeshift homeless no-barrier encampments just after county officials closed the only no-barrier shelter in the area.

After a series of conversations with commissioners and others in the field who were kind enough to share their insights, I can tell you what they think the homelessness commission could be focusing on.

And it’s not as simple as just building more permanent-supportive housing.

It’s really about overseeing the construction and management of a system that isn’t as focused on shooing homeless people around and arresting them for low-level drug offenses as it is in making services available and easy to access for vulnerable people. 

Keep in mind that study after study shows that many of the people living on the streets who trigger multiple police calls are facing serious mental health and drug addiction problems. 

Homelessness policy really needs to be refocused heavily toward mental health and drug treatment. 

Mental Health Treatment Teams

County supervisors have made modest investments in recent years to adjust toward mobile mental health treatment teams – instead of police –  that can address chronic homeless people. 

And there is the Be Well OC mental health program funded by supervisors that hopes to have three different campuses operating throughout Orange County. The key challenge there, in addition to big price tags, is to go beyond campus sites and make sure that the concept keeps developing a mobile approach to be able to get critical mental health nurses and caseworkers out into the streets where they are so critically needed. 

Drug Treatment, Diversion. Homeless and Drug Courts

County supervisors can do a much more robust job of funding drug treatment programs at local jails and shelters as well as working with the Sheriff, courts and the district attorney to really gear up homeless and drug courts.

Shelters

While supervisors have put together a few shelters in recent years – at Yale Street in Santa Ana and Kraemer Place in Orange – they are both facing lawsuits on conditions and there’s also a continued failure to address the need for walk-up shelters, which is what triggers so many encampments.

There’s a good percentage of homeless people who aren’t ready to make appointments – in many cases through police officers – to go to shelters but will utilize no barrier sites, where they can use bathrooms, shower and even sleep. 

The County of Orange had good success with the Courtyard Transition Center in downtown Santa Ana when it was first launched in 2016 after they opened it up as a walk up site and homeless started using the area in larger and larger numbers. 

There is one key component that supervisors and bureaucrats keep ignoring, which is the need to site walk up shelters in institutionally-zoned environments like civic centers not neighborhoods. 

Note that right now, the County of Orange owns the empty animal shelter site in Orange that is right next to the jail and across the street from county social services offices, many of the same places that chronically homeless people would need to connect with to get services. 

There is also 100 acres of open land in Irvine near the 5 Fwy that is county-owned and was zoned for homeless services. 

Neither of these two sites require approvals from any body other than the county board of supervisors. 

Housing

Once people get into a shelter environment, it’s critical that there be a way out for those that want it.

As it is, the current system fails way too many people and that shouldn’t be acceptable. 

County supervisors could work more closely with United Way and the local apartment owners association to really ramp up efforts to get qualified people into existing apartments. While the effort has been able to get some people into apartments, the numbers should be much higher. 

There was also great hope last year that county officials would buy up motels – especially places that triggers lots of police calls – with state and federal funds to bulk up a quick housing supply for chronically homeless. Yet based on the last update, there’s only two motels that are in the program.

And while it’s great that the newly-formed county housing trust is trying to build 2700 units, that effort doesn’t seem to be moving too fast for people sleeping on the streets today.

None of these issues are simple.

Yet they are far from unsolvable. 

What everyone is telling me is that this system needs more frank discussion, accountability on progress and transparency in decision making – so errors can quickly be corrected and lessons can be more quickly fashioned. 

Maybe it’s time for new leadership? 

There is a new county supervisor, Katrina Foley, who will hold her public swearing-in ceremony on Friday, that has talked a lot about wanting to focus on homelessness. 

As a former mayor of Costa Mesa who has had to contend with the County of Orange to get services for front line officials like city managers, maybe Foley can bring some more energy and focus to the issue. 

Maybe she can at least get the commission to meet. 

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