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Amidst a rising and record tide of homeless people dying on the streets last year, Orange County’s main government agency tasked with ending homelessness rarely showed up to work. 

That could be changing. 

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 the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. View his column archives. Send him an email news tip.

Last month, I wrote that despite record deaths in the streets, growing homeless encampments, Covid outbreaks at homeless shelters and the shooting of a homeless man by Sheriff’s deputies after stopping him for jaywalking, Orange County’s Commission to End Homelessness only met twice in 2020.

It’s a stunning lack of progress for a group county supervisors took over in 2018, arguing that their leadership could make a difference. 

It did.

For their election campaign mailers.

County Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do took over control of the commission — something regularly featured in both his tight re-election campaigns in 2016 and 2020 — ostensibly to get someone in charge that understood how government works and could get bureaucrats working. 

Yet on the streets, the problem of homelessness persists.

In many ways, it feels like Orange County’s effort to combat homelessness is stuck. 

That could change today.

After my March column, it appears commissioners started to talk among themselves privately.

Today, the commission is having its first meeting of the year and it looks like there’s going to be a debate about leadership.

After watching stalled progress for years, there’s a frank acknowledgment among the commissioners I’ve talked to privately that having a politician in charge of homelessness may not be the way to go.

We’ve tried many different headpieces in recent years.

The commission was launched in 2012, back when former Supervisor John Moorlach was heading up those efforts.

When lawsuits broke out around 2015, a federal judge tried to take over.

By 2018, Do was put in charge of the commission. Later, he was put in charge of CalOptima, the county’s main health insurance plan for the elderly and poor.

Now, county supervisors are doing victory laps publicly on their governing dais because they’ve approved a few housing projects and mental health programs.

But there’s little acknowledgement that the issue persists or how tough it is to solve. 

The lack of progress is not lost on the commissioners I spoke to privately. 

At today’s scheduled meeting, there’s an agenda item to elect new leadership.

Virtually of all the commissioners I spoke to agree it’s time for a new approach, one that doesn’t rely on politicians. 

Panelists face a huge question: Who in Orange County can steer the commission?

It needs someone who understands government and can prod it to move — without fear of offending sensitive types, like Do who gets very emotional and personalizes public critiques. 

If you think about it, the county’s homelessness commission is supposed to be a check on officialdom — a panel of community leaders who can challenge the bureaucracy and, yes, even our elected leaders to do better, be more efficient, focus on the bottom line of getting people off the streets along with mental health and drug counseling. 

Indeed, several commissioners privately told me the group might even consider changing its name, noting that the county has become too focused on a housing-first model without enough focus on the needed treatment that would keep mentally disabled people in such housing, safely.

Even judging the county from its narrow focus of building 2,700 permanent supportive housing units, the effort seems a total failure, only generating about 15% of its goal when I checked their website in March. We published stories back in 2018 that quoted leaders saying they’d have the job done in about three years

There were great hopes for a program initiated by the United Way to get existing apartment owners to rent to vulnerable people with government help. 

While there’s been some movement, it’s not nearly enough. 

And judging from the Sheriff Deputies shooting of Kurt Reinhold in San Clemente last December — by the department’s homeless liaison deputies who stopped the man for jaywalking — we still need a ton of work on finding a different policy tool for the mentally ill other than a gun.

Most city managers who have to deal with the real impacts on their streets say there’s a complete disconnect in Orange County, where the county officials get all the money for homelessness and do a lousy job of spending it.

Meanwhile, local city officials are left on the streets with no real tools other than police. 

That’s why there’s another quiet effort underway by homelessness commissioners, to consider changing their official focus from homelessness to mental health and drug treatment. 

Most players on the ground level dealing with homelessness will tell you that most of their clients are battling mental conditions, which are often treated on the street with drugs and/or alcohol. 

These people need much more than just housing. 

They need mental health treatment and counseling. Many need drug treatment.  

It’s not impossible.

There have been areas, like Utah, that did interesting things on housing.

There are others, like Eugene, Oregon, that are working to get a mental health treatment focus when it comes to dealing with homelessness by sending out social and mental health workers as opposed to just police.

There are some efforts in North Orange County to fund a similar effort, but it’s not clear how much money is going into that program. 

These kinds of programs should be analyzed in real time, getting measurements and benchmarks back to bureaucrats, elected officials and the public on a regular basis.

That kind of information spurs realistic conversations as opposed to cheap campaign mailers.   

Orange County can do better.

But it needs brave civic leaders to set aside politics, embrace reality and hold us all accountable on what is really working and what is not.

So who will step up?

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