One of the largest efforts to house homeless people in Orange County’s history is on the cusp of becoming a reality – with over 1,000 people expected to get housing under a new federally-funded program.

It stems from the recent federal coronavirus recovery law, which provided billions of dollars for housing vouchers for people experiencing homelessness. 

Of those vouchers, 1,033 are set aside for Orange County homeless people, according to county officials.

A series of contracts are up for approval Thursday by the county’s Continuum of Care Board, which oversees federal money aimed at helping homeless people. 

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The board is looking 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.

“Awesome,” is how Tim Houchen, a formerly homeless man who serves on the care board, described the housing effort in an interview Wednesday.

“We’ve been talking for a long time about people [becoming homeless] from the evictions and so forth from COVID, that they would become homeless at some point in time,” Houchen added.

The 4 p.m. meeting will be streamed live on Zoom.

Members of the public are able to comment early in the meeting if they follow the steps listed on the agenda.

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Houchen said the vouchers will help keep people from falling into homelessness.

“I think that that is a necessary action that needs to happen … so we don’t have [more] families, households out on the streets,” he said. 

The county’s top manager of homeless services, Jason Austin, wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday, according to a spokesman, and he didn’t respond to written questions.

“What works best for us [here in Orange County] is when they revamp the motels and make them permanent supportive apartments, like in Santa Ana.”

Tim Houchen, a formerly homeless man who serves on the care board

“It allows for a lot more direct services, wraparound services that didn’t exist before, [and] allows the service providers to come up right next to the clients and provide on-site services. So they don’t have to go anywhere.”

Under the new federally-funded program, 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.

Services for permanent supportive housing can include mental health counseling, addiction treatment and help with finding employment.

The new vouchers – while significant – are still a fraction of the need, said Houchen, who also chairs Anaheim’s Housing & Community Development Commission.

“We’re thrilled that it’s coming down the pike. But every time I ask the question … are the needs going to be met with these 238 [vouchers for Anaheim].”

Compared with the need, “238 sounds like a pretty small number,” Houchen said.

Another challenge could be finding units where landlords will rent to people with the vouchers.

“It’s going to be important to get the people with the vouchers in hand into a unit where the landlord is going to accept that voucher,” Houchen said.

According to the county, people will be eligible for one of the 1,033 new vouchers if they are experiencing homelessness; at-risk of homelessness; fleeing domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or human trafficking; or recently were homeless and have a high risk of becoming homeless again.

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The new vouchers come amid a separate effort by county officials to massively expand a program to buy and convert motels into homeless housing with on-site support services, known as Project Homekey.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $6 billion increase for Homekey projects in his newly approved budget.

If OC gets a proportionate amount, that’s nearly $500 million – more than 20 times the $21 million the county got last year to convert two Stanton motels into housing.

Ultimately, it’s up to the county to apply for the state grant money for the Homekey projects. 

In the past, county officials have sought much less state grant funding on homelessness than they’re eligible for – but have sought more in recent years after being publicly scolded about it by a federal judge.

Under OC’s existing $21 million Homekey projects, officials are converting the Stanton Inn and the Tahiti Motel into 132 affordable studio apartments expected to house 264 people starting in 2023.

That project is being developed by the non-profit Jamboree Housing Corp., one of the largest affordable housing developers in Orange County.

A local nonprofit, American Family Housing, will provide on-site services including meals, medical assessments and services to improve people’s physical and mental health, according to Stanton officials.

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

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