Orange County officials love to study homelessness.
They get even more excited by setting up new agencies to pretend to address the problem.
Especially during election years.
I remember the Courtyard Transition Center set up just a month before the 2016 county supervisors election, one that saw incumbent Republican Supervisor Andrew Do eek out a narrow win just as the concept of a low-barrier shelter was rolled out.
And then officials quietly abandoned the shelter in Santa Ana until the facility closed amidst controversy on how it was administered.
I recall the Commission to End Homelessness.
They had a 10-year plan to tackle the problem.
Except a decade later, the problem is still here.
The 10-Year Commission isn’t.
It got renamed as the County Homelessness Commission.
These days they barely meet and few, including the chairman, can even tell you their purpose.
Another election cycle ago, and in the midst of a federal lawsuit over homelessness, it was the OC Housing Trust.
That effort netted state legislation creating yet another new entity with the goal of building 2,700 new housing units.
Yet again, that effort seems to have faded.
Most recently, Sheriff Don Barnes joined the party with his own new panel.
After watching homeless deaths continue to spike amidst the ongoing pandemic in Orange County, Barnes is aiming to convene yet another group to — you guessed it — study the problem.
“I am convening a Homeless Death Review Committee to identify opportunities to reduce the number of homeless deaths in our County,” Barnes said in a statement forwarded by his spokespeople in response to questions earlier this month from Voice of OC.
“Over the last several years my department has been engaged in working to address the homeless problem in multiple ways, such as our behavioral health bureau and our participation in the County’s OC Cares. This Committee will compliment those efforts and provide recommendations to policy makers that are data-driven and aimed at preventing the loss of life.”
Last year, at least 386 people died in Orange County’s streets, according to Father Dennis Kriz, who was assigned by the Servite order to lead Saint Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton.
Kriz not only keeps tabs on homeless deaths, but is a strong voice who advocates for their needs.
I had two Sheriff Department staffers brief me on the details of the homeless death study group – but, as usual, the effort seems way light on details despite its big billing.
Barnes’ statements make the panel sound ominous, consequential, authoritative.
“This Committee will be comprised of technical experts who will look at the homeless deaths investigated by the coroner’s division and focus on those that may have been preventable,” Barnes wrote.
But like most programs funded by taxpayers to target services to people experiencing a loss of shelter, it seems as if the actual service delivery is thin and delayed.
A peek behind the process of forming the homeless deaths panel so far shows not much thought or preparation, pretty much the general approach to homelessness from the County of Orange.
When I asked about who would be on the homeless death panel, Sheriff officials had zero names, only a loose deadline to get them meeting by this Spring.
Sheriff’s officials said the panel’s “experts,” which they estimate will be a dozen people, would bring a “technical perspective” to the issue.
When asked who would participate, it’s the usual cast of characters.
The OC Health Care Agency, Social Services Agency, Sheriff Behavioral Health.
The hospital association. The medical association.
The same players who are participating on all these other panels that have done nothing in Orange County while taxpayers continue to fund rising calls for service related to homelessness, along with rising deaths and officer-involved shootings of mentally ill homeless people.
Sheriff’s officials told me in response to my questions that they responded to 10,864 calls for service in 2021 related to homelessness.
They cleared 1,253 homeless encampments last year compared to 802 in 2020.
Now to me, the most telling data set – one that screams out the biggest service gap for addressing homelessness – is the fact that Sheriff officials note that of the 1,652 people they contacted last year that were living along the riverbeds, only 36 individuals were able to be housed.
That’s a rate of 98% of homeless people on riverbeds slipping through cracks.
A pretty horrible batting average, especially given the fact that OC politicians have been congratulating themselves on their approach to homelessness since about 2016.
If you interview just about any homelessness service provider, just about everyone will point to a total lack of housing options, especially quick options.
Practical, quick solutions, like mobilizing low-cost apartment landlords willing to take vouchers, using motel conversions or unfilled hotel rooms or even small cottages on public land are all things a federal judge once challenged OC officials to put into play.
There’s also a host of abandoned public buildings in Orange County, like the old animal shelter building in Orange, next to the jail and social services agency.
There’s the state’s Fairview Development Center 100-acre campus in Costa Mesa with existing buildings.
There’s 100-acres of open county land in Irvine near the old El Toro Marine Corp Air Station that was even zoned for such uses.
Yet it’s the same story year after year – winter after winter, when many homeless people die on the streets.
Lack of housing options.
Orange County politicians continue to avoid the hard lift of figuring out housing options for the most vulnerable among us, people that many residents don’t want to be near.
Yet it’s unconscionable to continue ignoring the mounting deaths of homeless people.
Now, to their credit, Sheriff officials admit they see the rising tide of death among homeless people and are trying to take action.
Kriz has consistently been highlighting the issue of homeless deaths by writing a monthly Op-Ed for the Voice of OC – giving voice to those who died by listing them from the public records compiled at the Coroner’s office.
In our interview, Sheriff officials admitted that Kriz had gotten Barnes attention.
“It’s definitely true that the Sheriff is aware of the father highlighting this problem,” said Barnes’ Chief of Staff, Ray Grangoff.
He also noted that since Barnes also runs the Coroner, he sees the data building as well.
That’s why he wants it studied, Grangoff said.
Now, LA County does a similar study that looks into the causes of homeless deaths and issues an annual report.
Their most recent report notes that the majority of deaths are drug overdoses.
It’s likely that the OC analysis will show similar trends.
Here in Orange County, there is movement to start having more mental health professionals accompany law enforcement on calls.
Sheriff officials told me last year, there were a total of 397 transports for crisis stabilization and sobering to BE Well – the developing county mental health campus system.
Yet officials don’t seem to have any data on where these homeless people went after.
That makes me conclude they end up right back on the streets.
Once again, that points to a critical shortage of housing options for the vulnerable.
Meanwhile, local officials are focusing on relocating places like Mary’s Kitchen in Orange, which serves vulnerable residents.
That leaves me wondering why can’t county officials just connect the folks running the kitchen with the vacant county animal shelter that is near the jail and the social services agencies.
Might that not save a few lives now?
That’s the kind of quick scramble that’s needed to avoid the continuing development of illegal encampments across Orange County or even worse the expanding death toll among homeless residents.
Action is what’s needed to help people on the streets, not more study.