It’s not always easy to see the full picture of how Orange County leaders spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on homeless services.
It’s not broken down in the county’s annual budget.
And it’s not something officials talk about much on their own at public meetings of the county Board of Supervisors in charge of this spending.
But many residents and advocates for the homeless want to know. They say knowing the spending details are critical for accountability and transparency on what’s happening with tax dollars and whether they’re being spent effectively.
In recent weeks, as the county budget was coming up for approval, people reached out to Voice of OC wanting to know how their tax dollars are being spent on homelessness – and how much the county is tracking which programs are working and which aren’t.
Voice of OC followed up, and county officials provided breakdowns of the spending and answered a host of questions.
- Orange County is on track for a major drop in homelessness spending – from about $224 million last fiscal year to $166 million this year – as certain state and federal money scales back.
- But OC could be getting a massive boost later this year – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars – from an enormous new state program to fund conversion of motels into homeless housing. It’s worth $5.8 billion statewide, of which OC’s proportional share would be nearly half a billion dollars.
- Last year, the county’s biggest homelessness spending was on shelters ($132 million). This year, it’s on housing ($58 million) after the county closed its Project Roomkey motel shelter program for homeless people who were ill or at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.
- The county’s biggest individual contracts for homeless services are with Illumination Foundation and Volunteers of America, at $29 million each, for Project Roomkey shelter services and emergency rental assistance, respectively.
- The county also is planning to lay out much less this year on the state and federally-funded health program known as Whole Person Care (dropping from $14 million to $7 million) and the federally-funded Continuum of Care grants that pay for housing for homeless people (dropping from $22 million to $16 million). County officials say this comes as federal and state funding programs cycle up and down from year to year.
Homeless advocates said revealing details from such spending documents are a step in the right direction to help the public keep officials accountable.
“Some type of document that clarifies what money is and isn’t dedicated for people experiencing homelessness is a step toward transparency,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents disabled homeless people.
Tim Houchen is a formerly homeless man who now serves on the county’s homeless care board and chairs Anaheim’s housing commission.
After reviewing the spending documents the county provided to Voice of OC, he said it’s clear the county is mostly relying on federal and state money and not putting much of its own dollars into services.
“I don’t see a whole lot of general fund money being spent,” said Houchen, noting that some state grant programs require matching funds from counties.
Jason Austin, who oversees county homeless services as the director of care coordination, answered Voice of OC’s questions about the spending in a phone interview last week.
He said the major drop in spending from year to year is mainly because last year the county allocated $90 million in federal coronavirus response money to homelessness, mainly for the Project Roomkey motel shelters.
He noted a surge in new services is on its way from 1,033 new federal vouchers to house homeless people, as well as California’s new $5.8 billion statewide Homekey program for motel conversions into homeless housing.
“This is an unprecedented time,” Austin said, adding he and other county officials have been working with cities and developers to get ready for when the Homekey applications open up.
“We have been meeting nonstop” to be prepared, Austin said.
Asked whether OC will apply for its proportionate share of around half a billion dollars, Austin said officials are working hard to apply for as many viable projects as possible.
“It’s also going to depend on what’s available in our community, so depending on the number of potential hotels [whose owners want to sell],” he said, noting that because travel has been kicking back up, there may be less motel owners who want to sell.
“If it was up to me, I would want to buy every potential motel across the county,” Austin said.
“This is an amazing, unprecedented opportunity,” he added, saying the county has shown how motel conversions can work through its two existing projects in Stanton.
“It’s been a really great opportunity to show what we can all do when we work together.”
As for the drops in spending on Whole Person Care and other programs, Austin said that’s part of the natural funding cycles of state and federal dollars – with some programs funded in two or three-year funding cycles, with the county now finishing up some of those cycles.
The annual homelessness spending breakdown will be updated throughout the fiscal year and posted on this webpage, Austin said.
“As different things are allocated in the next year, you will see changes in that table,” he said.
As for a breakdown of how much money is going to each contractor and for what, Austin said his team has an internal spreadsheet of that, which he provided to Voice of OC after a reporter asked for it.
Advocates say it’s also important to know what programs are working – and which aren’t.
“Not everything is in plain sight right now,” Houchen said of the county’s measurements of how programs are doing.
When it comes to measuring programs’ success – such as how many people get off the streets – “we get different reports,” he said.
“The county says one thing and our advocate groups and so forth, they say another. So we have to come to some type of way where we can accurately judge the success of the programs, and the performance of different entities that are funded to administer the programs,” Houchen said.
The two main data systems for homeless services in OC – known as Coordinated Entry System and HMIS – don’t keep data on how people are doing after they’re housed, Houchen said.
“Something that [county officials are] working on this year is a new way to evaluate programs. I haven’t seen or heard much,” he added.
Weitzman echoed the need for clear data tracking.
“Understanding how the money’s being spent, [with] any type of governance is an important piece. But the question we’ve been asking is, what are the results?” Weitzman said.
“I haven’t been able to get meaningful data on how many people are getting kicked out of shelter, versus moving into housing.”
Austin says the county does track the performance of its contractors, as required in the individual contracts.
“We hold people accountable for what they’re buying and paying for,” Austin said.
“So it could range from the number of shelter exits or housing, or how many people are linked to supportive services, keeping the shelter’s beds full to a certain percentage,” he added.
“We need to be good stewards for every dollar we spend.”
Advocates say the county could be more transparent about what it’s tracking on individual contracts and what the outcomes are for people in the programs.
“If the way these contracts are being given incentivizes high churn and low service, then maybe we need to rethink the contracts” to get them focused on long-term solutions, said Weitzman.
“It’s been difficult to get just that basic – even on county shelters like Bridges, the numbers should be available in terms of how many people have come through this year, [and] how many people have returned after being exited,” she added.
“One of the significant complaints I see from advocates on the street is they keep seeing people being pushed into rapid rehousing who will not succeed [in] it, like seniors who will not be able to increase their income,” Weitzman said.
She credited the county with recognizing there is a homelessness crisis and providing some transparency about how the money is being spent.
At the same time, she said, “it is concerning to see it going down.”
“And so whether or not it would require pulling from any other budget, it seems like meeting or exceeding last year’s spending is critical as we head into the silver tsunami of COVID evictions,” she said.
“If we’re serious about getting ahead of it, if we’re serious about long-term solutions in ending homelessness in our county, that still leaves a lot of questions about what are the deliverables,” Weitzman said.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.