Orange County continues coming up short in housing and shelter for homeless people and foster youth once they become adults, according to a new grand jury investigation that is getting widespread support among local leaders.

A host of local elected officials agreed with the findings from the Orange County Grand Jury, saying it’s time to step up and build a range of new housing and service centers aimed at getting people off the streets.

The grand jury credited the county with doing a better job coordinating homeless services, yet found major shortfalls in housing and shelter that exacerbate homelessness.

The panel’s findings include:

  • “Orange County does not have enough housing affordable to individuals exiting homeless shelters”
  • “Youth aging out of foster care do not have enough safe housing.”
  • “South Orange County needs an emergency shelter”
  • “Homeless individuals suffering from mental illness and substance abuse need court-ordered treatment”

Additionally, the grand jury wrote that they “learned from law enforcement and shelter officials that there were not enough rehabilitation and treatment facilities and services to meet the need of homeless Orange County residents suffering from mentally illness or substance abuse.”

The status quo – including jailing homeless people with mental illness – is costing taxpayers big time, the panel found.

“The county spends significant funds annually on homeless individuals in jail and in the criminal justice system. When these expenditures are included, Orange County homeless costs were an estimated $1.6 billion” in the 2021 fiscal year, the grand jury wrote, citing an analysis commissioned by Supervisor Katrina Foley’s office.

Citing Voice of OC coverage, the grand jury quoted Sheriff Don Barnes noting jails have become the county’s mental hospital.

“By default, the Orange County Jail had become the de facto mental hospital of Orange County…. [in] 2018, Orange County jails had about 2,200 inmates with severe mental illnesses,” Barnes said.

Proper investments in services and housing works, the panel found.

“These County of Orange investments to address homelessness make a big difference by taking many people off the streets, providing shelters with basic services, giving needed medical and mental health care, helping with job training, and creating some permanent housing,” the grand jury wrote.

Among their recommendations are creating a low-threshold shelter in south OC, and having the county and cities encourage development of housing that’s affordable to people leaving homeless shelters and to foster youth when they become adults.

[Click here to read the grand jury report.]

Local Leaders Say More Housing is Needed 

Voice of OC reached out to a wide range of community leaders for their reaction to the report, including all five county supervisors, several south OC city leaders, all supervisor candidates who will appear on the November ballot, and activists.

They largely agreed with the grand jury’s findings that more needs to be done on the housing and shelter fronts.

“I agree with the [grand jury] that we’re doing a lot right and that more needs to be done,” Supervisor Don Wagner said in a text message to Voice of OC.

The grand jury, he added “correctly recognizes that more work on many fronts remains to be done.”

Wagner said he supports the concept of Gov. Gavin Newsom plan for court-ordered addiction treatment – known as CARE courts – but recognizes “the important legal questions and challenges surrounding implementation of the concept.”

The CARE court proposal is facing significant push back from civil rights groups as it makes its way through the state legislature. Groups like the ACLU and the Human Rights Watch have heavily criticized the proposal as a step backwards by forcing people into treatment and conservatorship.

[ Read more: Is Forced Mental Health Treatment, Not Housing, the Way to Solve Homelessness in Places like Orange County? ]

Supervisor Katrina Foley said: “The Grand Jury report confirms what we found at our investigative hearings and in our field surveys, audits, and through our internal homelessness advisory team.”

“The shelter and intentional housing case management system [in Costa Mesa] is a model that works, with Costa Mesa reporting 265 residents permanently housed since the shelter opened, and 65 more with housing plans pending,” she added.

Messages for comment on the grand jury report were not returned by Foley’s opponent, state Sen. Pat Bates, nor by supervisors Lisa Bartlett, Andrew Do or Orange County’s main elected official on homelessness: Supervisor Doug Chaffee.

Chaffee chairs the Board of Supervisors – which controls county homelessness spending – as well as chairs the county Commission to End Homelessness and the joint city-county agency tasked with putting together funds to build homelessness housing: the Orange County Housing Finance Trust.

Chaffee’s opponent in November, Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park, said she agreed with the grand jury that there needs to be far more housing available that’s affordable to people in shelters.

“The reality is that our county continues to not have enough safe housing available for people who go into shelters, including youth aging out of foster care,” Park said in a statement.

And it’s not just people in shelters who need affordable housing, she added.

“We have thousands of working families who are at risk of homelessness due to lack of good-paying jobs, affordable housing units and increased rent,” Park said. “We need to house our neighbors experiencing homelessness. That means building more affordable homes and permanent housing in pockets of our County that need them the most.”

Both of the November candidates for central county’s 2nd District said Santa Ana has taken on an overwhelmingly disproportionate burden in hosting homeless services, and that it’s time for South County to step up.

“The report clearly highlights the lack of ‘shared responsibility’ in addressing the homelessness crisis,” said Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who’s running for the 2nd District supervisor seat.

“South County certainly needs more shelter spaces in order to prevent the ‘de facto’ transfers of folks to central county cities like Santa Ana that have had to dedicate millions of dollars towards this crisis at the expense of programs for seniors, parks, public safety and infrastructure.”

His opponent, Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen, agreed with the grand jury’s call for more housing for foster youth and shelter in South County.

“I am not shocked at the findings of the [grand jury],” Nguyen told Voice of OC in a text message. “I believe Santa Ana has carried the burden of homelessness and all the issues that come with it. While several cities in the central and north [homeless service regions] have stepped up we have seen the South Cities make excuses as to why ‘not in their cities.’”

She said Garden Grove is doing its part. 

“As a Councilwoman in a City volunteering to do this work to receive limited support is frustrating while watching South County Cities do the bare minimum, if that.”

South Orange County Continues Resisting Homeless Shelters

Voice of OC contacted several south county leaders for their reaction to the report and its call for shelter in South County. None expressed interest in hosting a shelter, though one mayor said he’s interested in hosting a mental health facility.

While north and central county cities have been adding hundreds more low-threshold shelter beds in recent years, such efforts have been resisted by south county cities – with the exception of Laguna Beach, which has a small existing shelter.

Mission Viejo Mayor Ed Sachs said he “will be pushing for a mental health care facility” in the city, adding he had a meeting scheduled Thursday with Supervisor Don Wagner “to discuss the money the county has for mental health concerns.”

He didn’t respond to a follow up message asking for more information about the mental health facility he wants, such as whether homeless people would be eligible for services there through their Medi-Cal coverage.

San Clemente Mayor Gene James said he was both pleased and disappointed with the grand jury report.

He said the homeless population in his city has “a criminal element” that presents “a serious public safety concern, ranging from low-level nuisance crime to the potential of fire in our open spaces which would endanger life and property in San Clemente.”

“However, Sheriff Barnes’ quote on the jail being used as a mental health facility certainly resonated with me and gave me a new understanding of his dilemma,” he added, pointing to the quote in a Voice of OC article noted in the grand jury report.

“I found it disappointing [that] the Grand Jury overlooked the safety of our taxpayers and chose to focus on services for the homeless,” James said, adding that he doesn’t consider housing to be a core problem driving homelessness.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan pointed to her city’s affordable housing initiatives.

“South county definitely needs to do more. Irvine has gone above and beyond to build affordable housing units with wrap-around services – over 5,000 units just within our city,” she said in a text message.

“I’m also supportive of the state’s initiative on CARE Court. We definitely need to build more affordable units and as a city tasked by the state to plan for over [23,000] units in the next 8 years, we’re working hard to make sure we deliver.”

Symptoms of the Broader Housing Crisis

The leader of OC’s largest business advocacy group reacted to the grand jury report by pointing to the ongoing shortage of affordable housing.

The OC Business Council “identified a shortfall of nearly 60,000 housing units which is projected to grow significantly over the next 20 years,” said Jeff Ball, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council.

“Lack of housing supply, which has been developing for decades, is the root of many challenges,” he added. “For instance, it makes it more difficult for Orange County’s workforce to attain home ownership, and it’s a market force that drives up rent and exacerbates the homelessness crisis.”

He said the current approach needs to change.

“More collaboration and work is needed to challenge the status quo and to deliver the economic benefits that reducing homelessness will produce, and more importantly uplift the quality of life for Orange County’s most vulnerable residents.”

Paul Leon, former county public health nurse and founder of the Illumination Foundation – one of the county’s biggest homeless housing providers – said he agreed with much of the Orange County Grand Jury report.

He called it “outrageous” that South County has no navigation shelters or recuperative care programs.

Brooke Weitzman, a leading civil rights attorney representing Orange County’s homeless people, said housing is a crucial component to help stabilize residents when they get treatment for addiction or mental health issues.

“Until we have the housing (something the report [said OC is lacking]), ordering people into programs that don’t exist only to dump them right back into the trauma of the street would not be effective or a healthcare first evidence-based approach,” Weitzman said, referring to the CARE court proposal, in a statement to Voice of OC.

“​Simply looking at the rate of housing development for low, moderate, and high income around the county makes it clear we have failed to produce affordable housing at a rate that would reduce or end homelessness. It is a critical point we have been making for years only reinforced by this report,” she said. 

She said political will to address the housing shortage is critical. 

“As we have said for years, and as this report confirms, ending death in the streets of our county is not an impossibility,” Weitzman said. “We have the land, we have the funds, all we need is the political will to prioritize housing and evidence based interim solutions.”

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

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.