City Council members in at least two Orange County cities, Fullerton and Orange, are looking at how to spend over $3.6 million combined in federal COVID grant funding that has to be used to help address the homeless crisis.
The money is part of $5 billion in American Rescue Plan assistance to homeless people across 651 state and local jurisdictions through the HOME Investment Partnerships program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The billions in funding stems from a COVID stimulus bill President Joe Biden signed in March 2021.
Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung said homelessness is a major concern to residents and that he is grateful to the federal government.
“We should be mindful of the fact that these are fellow men and women that are on the streets and unhoused and that we have a moral duty and even a fiduciary one to find solutions,” he said in a Monday interview.
The COVID money from the federal program can be used for producing affordable housing, developing a non-congregate shelter, supportive services and tenant-based rental assistance programs.
Fullerton officials are expected to receive close to $2 million from the program and unanimously voted last Tuesday to approve and submit a plan to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development to use the money for homeless supportive services and a tenant based rental assistance program.
Meanwhile, Orange is expected to receive over $1.6 million from the program and earlier this month voted unanimously to approve a plan to also use the money towards supportives services without discussion.
At their meeting tonight, Orange city council members are expected to finalize and submit the plan as well as amend their 2021-2022 Annual Action plan to include the HOME- American Rescue Allocation plan.
These allocation plans are being crafted just as the county’s first homeless death review committee released its inaugural report on homeless people deaths in 2021 that showed deaths of people living on the street have been on the rise for the last decade.
The report shows that out of the 395 homeless people who died in OC in 2021, 29 died in Orange and 28 died in Fullerton.
The county’s 2022 point in time count shows there were 272 homeless people in Fullerton and 202 of them were unsheltered and that there were 250 homeless people in Orange and 134 were unsheltered.
None of the money in the two cities is being used to create affordable housing – despite homeless advocates routinely saying the lack of affordable homes in Orange County has fueled the homeless crisis.
Fullerton city staff said they don’t have enough federal COVID money from their HOME American Rescue allocation to develop affordable housing and are instead using it to provide support programs.
Jung said it’s far more pressing to address homelessness than affordability.
“The folks that are in trouble right now. We need to provide a bridge for them to get out of their current situation, get into wraparound services, and have a path forward,” he said.
Fullerton officials are looking to use a bulk of the money – a little over $1.1 million – towards supportive services like homeless prevention services, childcare, housing counseling, mental health services, legal services and more for people who are or at risk of being homeless.
City council members will be presented with more specific programs through the process, according to a staff report.
About $550,000 of the money will be used for a rental assistance program in the city that already exists.
The two year rental assistance program helps low income seniors living in mobile homes that earn less than 50% of the median income and spend 30% of it on housing.
The COVID money would be used to modify the program to assist people coming out of homelessness as well as victims of domestic abuse.
Close to $300,000 of the money will be used for administrative expenses.
Fullerton officials aren’t expected to use any of the money towards producing affordable homes because according to city staff the close to $2 million is not enough to develop affordable homes.
Meanwhile, a state program called Project Homekey is helping convert rundown motels into permanent housing with supportive services in places like Costa Mesa.
[Read: From Motel 6 to Affordable Housing: Conversion Underway in Costa Mesa]
Councilman Ahmad Zahra said at the meeting his city never took advantage of Homekey like other cities have because they didn’t have motels.
Jung said Monday he and other council members are looking at Project Homekey.
“The challenge in Fullerton is to find that kind of facility that matches with the requirements of the program. We don’t have many. We have effectively one major hotel left in the city and few motels but we got to find something that meets the criteria.,” he said.
In Orange, the bulk of the funding – over $1.5 million – is expected to be used to reimburse their General Fund for money spent on providing supportive services to homeless people in the city – costs that were incurred after the eviction of Mary’s Kitchen.
In 2021 city officials ended a nearly 20-year agreement with Mary’s Kitchen – a nonprofit that provides hot meals, laundry services and showers to homeless people – to operate on city owned property and force them to leave over safety and crime concerns.
[Read: Mary’s Kitchen Searches For New Place Before June 10 Eviction]
Orange Councilwoman Arianna Barrios said in a Monday phone interview that the funding will help close a gap created by the eviction of Mary’s Kitchen.
“We have a very clear and present need, at the moment that this funding became available. We had had an ongoing issue with Mary’s Kitchen in terms of how it was managed,” she said.
The decision to force the nonprofit out faced pushback from the community and as part of an agreement reached in Federal court in 2022 city officials agreed to continue to provide those same services as Mary’s Kitchen did uninterrupted.
So city officials partnered with the Hub OC, another nonprofit, to create a homeless resource center at a temporary location to keep offering those services, according to a staff report.
The over $1.5 million will also be used to continue those services until the fund dries up.
Barrios said the resource center is tied into the county’s overall homeless services system and people who come to the center can be connected with services like Medi-Cal or housing.
At the same time, the city plans to use non-COVID annual HOME funds to create a tenant based rental assistance program in partnership with affordable housing developments in the city. The rental assistance program is still being crafted.
Meanwhile the rest of the HOME COVID dollars – over $82,000 – will be used for administrative expenses.
Barrios said the city has done a good job of creating affordable housing and there is a project to create affordable housing near Hub OC.
“We’ve transformed a number of market rate apartment buildings into low income and affordable housing complexes,” she said.
Barrios also said Mayor Dan Slater has been a vocal proponent of building a shelter in Orange and a task force has been created which is looking at potential sites.
“That is one of our longer term goals that we’re going to be reaching for so the way we’ve envisioned it is that we’re really kind of firing on all cylinders,” she said.
“We are building opportunities for pathways to go from homelessness to shelter.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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