Orange County’s top prosecutor says there continues to be a problem of families becoming homeless when their breadwinner goes to jail for a low-level drug or alcohol offense.
At a public meeting this week, District Attorney Todd Spitzer said his office is working on offering people arrested for low-level substance abuse an opportunity to avoid jail if they go into a program – but that it’s crucial for actual programs to be in place to support their families.
“I want to be sure that … we offer somebody a program in order to get them out of custody so they don’t lose a job. Because that is critical, and they have children or a significant other at home,” Spitzer said at Wednesday’s meeting of the county’s Commission to End Homelessnss.
“Let’s say it’s domestic violence because of alcohol or drugs and I want to, as an agreement, get that person into a program, but I can’t have them return home,” he added.
The goal, Spitzer said, is to prevent people from ending up on the streets.
“What kind of resources are we going to have, so that the children and the [spouse] don’t become homeless because they can’t pay their rent … because the person who’s been arrested or detained can’t go back to that house for obvious reasons until they go through their program [for] domestic violence,” Spitzer said.
“How are we thinking about that, as we’re starting to deal with those individuals in the criminal justice system?”
The commission’s chairman said he had no idea if that’s being looked at.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who chairs the Commission to End Homelessness.
He suggested it could be something looked at during the next meeting.
Another commissioner, Paul Wyatt, said the panel needs to focus more on specific gaps in the system, like those Spitzer mentioned.
“This is exactly where we should be doing our work,” Wyatt said, adding he wants to see an answer by the next meeting.
“Every time we are in contact with somebody and that situation could be changed, or is about to change, and we don’t take the opportunity to ensure that the result of actions we take don’t prevent homelessness … then we’ve missed an opportunity,” he said.
Wyatt also said commissioners should be examining various assistance programs.
“If we don’t take the rental assistance and other programs to these kinds of opportunities to make sure that we provide that bridge – economic bridge until the situation resolves, then we’ve simply missed an opportunity.”
Homeless advocate and attorney Brooke Weitzman said it’s obvious that jail and criminal charges worsen homelessness.
“It is no secret that jail and criminal charges related to poverty, homelessness, and mental health do significant harm. Typically make the underlying issue worse. And often result is derailing progress, interrupting programs, loss of employment, exacerbated mental health conditions, wasted resources, and other negative things,” Weitzman told Voice of OC.
“The question is if we all agree on that, why is the additional funding going to enforcement agencies instead of housing and social work and programs?”
The commission – which has struggled to attract the majority required to hold meetings – was able to meet this week, though five members were absent: Richard Afable, Jeanne Awrey, Randy Black, Marshall Moncrief and Dan Young.
The commissioners are planning a revamping of Orange County’s homelessness strategy, based on a series of “pillars” that will take several months to discuss at their once-every-other-month meetings.
As is common at their meetings, commissioners talked largely in generalities about what should be studied or looked at, with little to no discussion of what concrete steps can be taken in the near term to fix gaps in the homeless care system.
The way officials structure the meeting drew questions from a local activist, who noted the public isn’t given the opportunity to see staff presentations before commenting – while commissioners are.
“I think I’ve mentioned this before … it’s difficult to make public comments before any information is shared,” said Anaheim resident Pat Davis. “And I went looking for links to this from the agenda, and I could find none.”
There was no response from the commission, which posts its staff presentations online after the meetings.
The discussion this week reflected a shift in local officials’ thinking about homeleness, from being largely a law enforcement issue to one that needs solutions around health, housing and income.
The city managers of Garden Grove and Anaheim said they’re excited to be moving forward with mental health response vans to handle thousands of calls that would otherwise go to police.
“It’s something we’re very excited about. We think it is a program that could take up to 14,000 calls a year of folks suffering from mental health, substance abuse and homelessness issues,” said Garden Grove City Manager Scott Stiles.
Officials also noted there’s a wave of state funding – the largest ever – now being made available to address homelessness and affordable housing, totaling $22 billion statewide
Wyatt said it’s crucial for Orange County to try to get its fair share of the funds – something the county previously didn’t pursue as much as it could have.
“We need to make sure that Orange County gets every dollar that it’s eligible to get out of those programs, and put them to work really effectively and in efficient ways,” he said.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.