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As Orange County gets ready to house more than 1,000 homeless people with new federal vouchers – starting in the next couple weeks – there remains a host of unanswered questions about what support services will be provided and who will coordinate the efforts.

The idea behind the 1,033 vouchers for OC – funded by the federal coronavirus recovery package Congress passed in March – is to provide on-site support services to help people get back on their feet and find longer-term housing.

While the county’s been preparing for this for months, it’s unclear what the plan actually is.

County officials were light on answers late last week when asked about it at a coordination meeting about the program.

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Tim Houchen, a formerly homeless man, questioned who would be providing support services given that it would be the responsibility of public housing agencies that don’t have experience with it.

“They’re not normally accustomed to providing supportive services,” said Houchen, who serves on the county’s Continuum of Care board that oversees federally-funded homelessness services.

At the Thursday board meeting, Houchen asked if officials have considered bringing in housing navigators to help people find apartments.

“I’d like to know a little bit more about the arrangements that we’ve made,” Houchen said.

That’s still in the works, officials said, months into preparing for the vouchers that were passed into law in March.

“We’re working to identify opportunities [so] that we can leverage those resources to provide enhanced services,” responded Zulima Lundy, a county manager who helps coordinate homeless services.

“I’m not able to [provide] a more detailed plan as to what each housing authority is planning to do with their supportive services and housing navigation,” added Lundy.

She said officials are hoping to start the process of getting people housed with the vouchers “in the next week or two.”

Houchen pressed again.

“As far as the supportive services, it sounds like you said the [public housing authorities] were going to be responsible for that. And I’m going to tell you, just from my own personal experience, is that they don’t provide supportive services,” Houchen said.

“How are they geared up to be able to do that now?”

Lundy said officials may be looking for additional money to provide those services, but didn’t have any specifics.

“If you’re looking solely at the housing authorities, you’re absolutely right. They’re typically not equipped to provide long-term supportive resources,” she said.

On-site supportive services can include mental health counseling, addiction treatment and help with finding employment.

Jason Austin, who coordinates homeless services and is helping oversee the voucher program, said there will be more to share in the future.

“There will be more to follow in our upcoming meetings,” he said.

Support services will be up and running in the next few weeks, Austin told Voice of OC in written answers to questions.

“Each housing authority has their own supportive service resources that will be made available to eligible households. We expect these resources to be operational within the next few weeks,” Austin wrote.

“This [voucher program] creates an opportunity to effectively end the homelessness of over 1,000 households in Orange County,” Austin said.

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Next week, Austin is bringing forward $11 million in contracts for approval, to have non-profits administer the program for 529 of the vouchers.

OC Health Care Agency officials didn’t respond for days to requests for answers starting last Wednesday on how the voucher program will work.

On Monday, after this article was initially published, a spokesman said Austin did provide them answers but that officials hadn’t forwarded them to Voice of OC due to an internal miscommunication.

Skyrocketing rents in OC could present a problem for people trying to find housing with the vouchers, noted Callie Rutter, a lifelong OC resident who was homeless until a few months ago.

One area of concern is whether the vouchers will be enough to actually afford apartments given OC’s skyrocketing rents.

“A one bedroom around where I am is around $2,200,” yet federal rules cap payments at lower than that, Rutter said.

“Apartments, housing is difficult to find,” she added.

Officials noted people will be competing for apartments in the open rental market.

“We are going to be flooding the rental market, really, essentially, with 1,000 or so vouchers,” said Lundy, the county manager.

“So there is going to be a little bit of competition for folks.”

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Pastor Donald Dermit, a longtime homeless advocate who serves on the county care board, questioned how homeless people will get the help they need to find apartments for their vouchers.

“Is there going to be a special department that will be delegated to help these people that get the vouchers…to be able to actually get an apartment?” Dermit asked.

“What are our next steps on that?”

He didn’t get a clear answer.

Lundy and others replied that she can try to have a presentation at a future meeting on that.

“We’ll be very diligent in ensuring there is updates that come back to the board,” said Tim Shaw, a non-profit consultant who serves as the care board’s chair.

The care board approved a staff recommendation to split the vouchers between the four housing agencies in OC – which are run by the cities of Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove as well as the county government for the rest of OC.

Anaheim’s housing authority will distribute 272 vouchers, Garden Grove’s will distribute 117, Santa Ana’s will distribute 87, and the county’s will distribute 557.

Overall, officials and residents said the 1,033 vouchers are a major opportunity to help people get off the streets.

“This is a monumental achievement and a monumental task for the county,” said Shaw.

“It’s going to take all hands on deck to make sure that this is implemented properly.”

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

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