There was once a time when Orange County leaders spoke boldly about ending homelessness.
Today, they barely seem able to muster any real public conversation about the crisis.
Much less peek under the hood and publicly question: What’s working? What isn’t? Why?
Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
Consider the county’s homelessness commission – the premier body set up by OC supervisors to advise them on homelessness, inaugurated to much official fanfare a decade ago when it launched as the Commission to End Homelessness.
A few years back, it dropped the part about ending homelessness from its name.
As the pandemic has changed in nature, the commission has been able to put together four meetings this year but still looks and sounds lost as a group, from monitoring its public meetings.
County supervisors stacked the advisory committee with a mix of elected leaders, city managers, public safety officials and county contractors.
On paper, like much of the county’s homelessness response, the group looks impressive.
But they don’t say much.
Indeed, this month – facing an OC Grand Jury report that concluded only one third of homeless people at shelters are transitioning into housing – homeless commissioners didn’t ask a word about what happens to the rest.
County Supervisor Doug Chafee, who chairs the homeless commission, told his fellow commissioners they would not be discussing the grand jury report or conclusions as county staff would be preparing a response.
No commissioner challenged Chafee on that kind of insular approach.
Our elected leaders – and the public sector executives they oversee – are great at throwing out big statistics and buzz words about all the affordable housing and shelters being built, about mental health campuses and triage services on city streets being funded, about law enforcement dollars being redirected to social services and health care.
Yet our local streets tell a different story.
Homeless deaths continue to spike to record levels and countless families are living on the edge out of cars, motels and hotels.
Last month, 51 homeless people died in Orange County, a record setting pace of 287 for the year, according to Coroner data – which often doesn’t include deaths in hospitals.
Earlier this year, Sheriff Don Barnes announced, to much media attention, that he was setting up yet another panel to study the situation – a panel that’s never been heard from publicly.
If you ask the most active people on the ground level, who are working with homeless people on the streets each day – and have to look them in the eye and tell them there’s nowhere to go – you quickly understand there are major gaps.
One of the biggest problems in the system identified most recently by the grand jury is the lack of affordable or permanent supportive housing opportunities to have homeless people – who want to start a different life – transition into.
That needs to be fixed.
That’s what seems to be consistently missing from the county’s homelessness response: Immediacy – moving as if elected officials’ own family members were out on the street, tonight, needing a place to sleep.
Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to steer more and more resources to public bureaucracies – ostensibly to mount responses.
One recent study commissioned by County Supervisor Katrina Foley, who is running for re-election in the 5th District in November, concluded taxpayers are steering more than $1.6 billion into homelessness and failing to gather basic data to track if it’s being spent effectively.
Yet at the last County Homelessness Commission – officials told commissioners they still don’t communicate well amongst each other or have a good understanding of what’s happening with outcomes on all the programming and money being spent.
To their credit, these county executives really laid it out there with courageous starkness for the county commissioners – again set up to advise county supervisors – to take in.
In fact, they got funding approved to study what the problem is – despite the coordination problem being known since the panel launched in 2012 and once again virtually becoming a campaign theme for then-Supervisor Andrew Do back in 2016.
What they didn’t get was any questions.
Homelessness challenges are almost never talked about in public at the County of Orange.
The county seat in Orange County, the City of Santa Ana – where the main jail facility is located – doesn’t have good communication with county agencies, even though the two operate a joint powers authority over the civic center.
At the last Homelessness Commission meeting, we heard that county health executives and the head of CalOptima – the county health insurance plan that is paid to cover every homeless person in OC – are just starting to meet on a monthly basis.
That kind of lack of coordination at so many levels seems like a real problem.
Yet not one official asked a question in public about this at the last commission meeting, again a panel that – more and more – looks dazed and lost.
For a real sense of the immediacy of the crisis, you just have to listen to Father Dennis Kriz, the pastor of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton. The Catholic priest confronts the issue, face-to-face, on a daily basis, dealing with challenged families who are experiencing homelessness.
Kriz publicly confronted county homelessness commissioners earlier this month on behalf of 94 homeless families with minor children identified in the county’s latest point-in-time count.
More than 250 people.
Kriz told commissioners the tally includes 121 children.
“Stay with that number,” he said.
“There are also 300 unsheltered seniors.”
Kriz, like so many across Orange County working to end homelessness, can’t get their head around why there are so many gaps in Orange County’s safety net despite there being so much in tax dollars directed at the crisis.
Kriz, who writes a monthly column for Voice of OC tracking homeless deaths, kept it simple.
“Give hotel vouchers to these people immediately,” he said.
“Otherwise, you’re condemning 121 kids to remain on the streets for a large amount of time,” Kriz warned.
If county leaders can’t stomach handing out hotel vouchers, he wondered out loud, how about a place to safely park?
“There is no place where you can legally park and sleep,” Kriz noted. “A lot of these families are in cars.”
That made me wonder – what about Angel Stadium at night, which is owned after all by taxpayers.
Hearing the tone of Kriz’s voice is what you would expect from the public sector executives and elected officials – themselves showered with so many pay and health benefits – and charged with meeting the greatest quality of life challenge of our time.
Yet no commissioner uttered a word.
Kriz – who in my mind is increasingly leading the county commission through the power and moral force of his own example and voice – left county supervisors and executives with a stark warning about what happens next if they don’t start to focus.
“I’ll start taking them to your places.”
That might just be the kind of immediacy county politicians need to stay focused and get back to the original goal of ending homelessness.