After three years of direct leadership from the Orange County supervisors, the county’s homelessness commission officially declared itself lost at sea last week and pulled off a mutiny of sorts, hoping to chart itself back to relevance. 

Norberto Santana, Jr.

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In a stunningly frank self-assessment of their lack of focus and meetings during 2020 (something I called them out on a week earlier), commissioners — to their credit — called themselves out for a complete lack of focus or follow up. 

As Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do tried to quickly move at the start of the meeting to elect new officers, commissioners cut him off, declaring the need for a new approach given the lack of results. 

“It seems there was a group that wanted someone else,” said Commission Vice Chair, Supervisor Doug Chaffee during a Monday interview talking about the mutiny against Do’s leadership, one that ultimately led to him now chairing the decades-old advisory panel to county supervisors on homelessness. 

Do — who later told commissioners he wasn’t going to seek another term as chairman of the panel — suggested commissioners take six months or so to plot out the panel’s future, but commissioners generally said that would take too long.

Keep in mind that homeless people are dying in the streets in record numbers. 

Numerous shelters have Covid outbreaks. 

Homeless encampments are popping up in downtown Santa Ana after supervisors shut down the Courtyard Transition Center at the civic center, the last walk-up shelter run by the county.

Last year, Sheriff’s deputies — trained as homeless liaison officers — shot a homeless man in San Clemente after confronting him for jaywalking. 

So what should the county’s Commission to End Homelessness be focused on?

“I’m not sure what to do with the commission,” said Chaffee, who only got the job because virtually every other commissioner — except OC Rescue Mission CEO Jim Palmer — was conflicted out because they do business in some fashion with the County of Orange.

“It’s advisory,” said Chaffee. 

“It has no power.”

That’s exactly how county supervisors, led by Do, wanted it to be when they crafted the ordinance back in 2018 that took over the commission, ostensibly because it wasn’t functioning properly. 

These folks are so thin-skinned that they took an advisory panel, with no power or budget, and stacked it with insiders, who would be incapable of issuing any direct critique and then even made sure to lead the panel themselves.

To no real surprise, the commission has never done much.

It was set up in 2012 to much fanfare, but has never publicly tackled root issues on homelessness in Orange County, proposed material solutions or held anyone accountable. 

As homeless deaths reached record levels last year, the commission just seemingly gave up, didn’t even meet.

Meanwhile, county supervisors continually congratulate themselves in public on the micro-steps they’ve taken to create a few shelters and some limited housing — three years after Do himself stood in federal court before Judge David Carter and boldly announced that supervisors failed and needed to do better.

So now that commissioners are beginning to get a bit more independent, they are starting to ask themselves what does it mean to do better?

Many want accountability. 

They want to be able to measure results, on a monthly basis – even in real time. 

Every person serving on the commission to end homelessness is a very busy person, who I am sure does not want to waste their time or be associated with a rudderless ship.

While Susan Price, the county’s first homelessness Czar — appointed by Do in a big media blitz — ended up not accomplishing much, her successor, Jason Austin, has earned some praise among commissioners as someone who could be capable of communicating a vision and helping commissioners hold staff and supervisors publicly accountable. 

After listening to commissioners, it seems clear that most don’t know the main providers of homeless services across Orange County or how well they are doing their job. 

They don’t know much about how well Orange County is doing in building the 2,700 units it promised back in 2018 when the Housing Trust was set up to specifically meet this need.

They don’t know much about how the criminal justice system feeds off these individuals, who are cycled through local jails on a regular basis. 

They’re not sure about what kinds of social services, or state and federal grants are out there to help such people in need.

They don’t know much about innovative projects being done in places like Utah, Oregon or even their own backyard in North County, where mental health nurses and social service workers are going out with police to help treat chronic homeless. 

Yet they are beginning to know that they don’t know much. 

And that’s a start. 

When I spoke to David Duran, who works with the homeless as a volunteer across Orange County with the advocacy group, Housing is a Human Right, he thought out loud a lot about the role commissioners should play and he came up with an interesting take. 

“Take them on a tour each month. Educate them. Force them to go meet with people who are living on the streets in Orange County,” he said. “Then, stop by jail. Talk to some arrested on streets.” 

Duran said it’s time commissioners gain a firsthand understanding.

“Stop by the morgue. See the toe tags of those dead on streets because they had no one. Then think about that. And think more,” he said.

That would give them purpose, Duran said.

“And when you meet, remember this is the population this county is supposed to be helping. That should help them identify what they should be doing.”

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