Two months after CalTrans forced a camp of homeless people off state agency property just below south Orange County, advocates say many remain out on the streets.
This is after county officials and elected leaders made assurances, in the weeks leading up to the encampment removal on Aug. 27, that those staying on the property located right under the City of San Clemente would get connected with services and support.
OC Health Care Agency officials claim they’ve since engaged at least 26 people from the encampment “over the course of six weeks,” and connected them at one point with services like case management, shelter, and behavioral health support.
“At the time of CalTrans clearing of the encampments, 8 were connected to (Coordinated Entry Services) and a housing opportunity, and … 6 were connected to outreach, short-term motel stays or Behavioral Health services,” said Douglas Becht, acting director of the agency’s Office of Care Coordination, in a written response to questions.
Local advocates for homeless people say differently.
Maura Mikulec, a volunteer and social worker with the South County Homeless Task Force advocacy group, says all of those who were forced out still have no stable living situation.
She said two people are currently in motels — but all are still homeless.
Mikulec supports her claims with numbers she compiled tracking the whereabouts of 26 people she said she knew to be regulars at the camp, and observed the impact of CalTrans’ removal while keeping in touch with those ousted. Voice of OC reviewed the data, which she shared.
Mikulec also made frequent visits to the camp prior to its removal.
Her numbers, she said in an Oct. 10 phone interview, were current as of Wednesday.
Becht’s Oct. 27 written statement came two days after Voice of OC asked six questions of the Health Care Agency on the encampment issue, some of which requested the county’s own data on the number of people remaining on the street after the camp removal.
Or if they were tracking that information.
That statement from Becht did not include a response to such requests.
Of the 24 Mikulec counted as still on the streets, she said 22 are currently staying in — or coming in-and-out of — San Clemente, while two are staying in San Juan Capistrano.
Mikulec said, in an Oct. 21 email sharing her numbers, seven of those people are “known to be working with service providers” and 15 were either “never adequately engaged, or there was insufficient follow up from service providers.”
She lambasted the continuous series of paperwork homeless people have to fill out for assistance.
“We cannot come to people who feel hopeless and have no reason to trust people, and even less reason to trust ‘the system,’ the system that has repeatedly let them down, and expect them to be eager to see us and do the paperwork for the umpteenth time, the paperwork that got them nowhere the other 30 times they did it,” she wrote in an Aug. 5 email to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and the head of the Health Care Agency’s Office of Care Coordination at the time, Jason Austin.
County staff say they’ve been working to help those people.
“Over the course of the past 2 months since the encampment closure, the County and Outreach Provider community have worked together in efforts to continue to locate and offer services to any individual moved from the CalTrans property,” Becht said in his written statement.
He added that the County is “dedicated” to help getting homeless people into housing.
Some question that dedication.
A Sept. 22 letter sent to county Health Care Agency officials, which attributes its authors to 11 anonymous homeless people, said service providers have not placed them in appropriate housing that would lead to permanent housing.
And Becht, in a Sept. 30 email from the Health Care Agency responding to that letter, said, “We understand that there is a limit to the resources available for those experiencing homelessness and we are committed to working with each person around connecting them with the resources that best fits their individual needs.”
“Here we are, still on the streets of San Clemente–and characterized as ‘service resistant’ and refusing offers of help. Admit that the process of getting assistance is lengthy, that there is not enough housing for everyone who qualifies for it, and that there are people on the street who do want help and are doing what they’re supposed to do to receive it,” the Sept. 22 letter reads.
Mikulec said city and county officials often rely on the argument that anyone who needs help needs to accept it — that there are always services available — but “there just aren’t any actual resources that end their homelessnes.”
“It feeds the narrative that it’s all on these people, that they just don’t want help. They do, they just need better help than they’re given,” Mikulec said in an Oct. 20 phone interview.
Mikulec criticized one type of service which she said officials offered those at the old camp, a service commonly referred to within CARES Act spending policies as “rapid rehousing,” a program which places priority on moving families who have become homeless into permanent housing as quickly as possible, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development.
In the county’s defense, Mikulec said, the program and its dollars are specifically earmarked for the strict purpose of placing people into market-rate housing.
She voiced confusion on how, in a region where not even all college-educated people can afford market-rate housing, county officials assumed people from the San Clemente homeless camp could sustain those living arrangements.
“The devil is in the details. For one, the landlord (under the program) is renting to the person,” Mikulec said.
An agency like the county “can’t cosign, the agency isn’t a guarantor — nothing like that, these are people in many cases who have zero credit to bad credit, no rental history or a history of evictions, no jobs, and no promise of one year’s rent,” she said.
“How many landlords are going to take that when they’ve got other people with jobs, with good credit, who want that apartment also?” Mikulec said.
Homeless people in San Clemente are also asking their elected officials to be transparent about what they describe as a lack of resources and services to address their needs.
“What we really want is for you to at least be honest about our plight. As it is now, we are blamed for being unhoused in a county that does not offer safe, permanent, affordable housing as an immediate response to people with needs like ours,” reads the letter from the homeless people.
San Clemente Councilman Chris Duncan said the city was not directly involved in the dismantling of the CalTrans encampment, but said their homeless outreach coordinator was present to help the folks there.
“I don’t think that’s probably the approach that I would generally support, but the city I think did step up and did above and beyond what we’re called upon to do,” he said in a phone interview Monday.
Duncan also said the county should have a larger role in addressing homelessness.
“The county has not fulfilled its obligation as it pertains to the homeless in South Orange County in particular,” Duncan said.
He also said there should be permanent supportive housing in San Clemente.
“I think that would be the best way to accomplish the goal, I think that everybody has, which is to not have the people living out on the street,” he said. “I do think that San Clemente has an obligation to do more of that.”
And there’s one council member, Gene James, who told Voice of OC he doesn’t think housing is the solution.
“The advocates for vagrancy along with the media promote permanent supportive housing as the panacea for homelessness. Without addressing the core issues of mental health and chemical addictions, a bed and a room only serves to line the pockets of the very advocates who promote the ill-conceived and self-serving concept of housing first,” he wrote.
He also said the city recently appointed a new Human Affairs Committee assigned to look at leading causes for homelessness which he said was mental health and drug abuse.
James also said the city tried to partner up with neighboring cities on a temporary shelter in an unincorporated part of the county to allow the sheriff’s department to enforce camping laws.
“Unfortunately, our neighboring cities rejected the idea,” he said.
Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Doug Chaffee responded to the letter from the people who identified themselves as homeless in an email, telling them they were working with different departments to make sure resources are offered to people experiencing homelessness.
They also provided a number to the Health Care Agency’s Office of Care Coordination to call for anyone who is homeless.
But for many advocates and homeless people, those are just empty promises.
“People still don’t know the most basic truth, that being connected with services means shit as far as whether you’re on the street or not. All these people who were connected with services are still on the street and will still be on the street,” Mikulec added.
The story has been corrected to reflect that 22 from the encampment are currently staying in — or coming in-and-out of — San Clemente not 15.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.