In 2018, Orange County achieved meaningful progress on homelessness

By Supervisor Andrew Do

It has been a year of momentous change for Orange County.

We started the year transitioning more than 1,000 people out of two major homeless encampments. Now, we end the year with plans to build 2,700 units of supportive housing for the neediest in our communities and expand the number of emergency shelters and support services. In 2018, we took significant steps to build out a system of integrated services that are designed to help people transition permanently out of homelessness.

During this season of charity, it is appropriate that we reflect on the lessons we have learned, with the hope that we can build on those lessons to be even more effective in dealing with the national crisis of homelessness.

After almost four years of leading these efforts in the county, I know the most meaningful shift for Orange County has been our approach to combating homelessness.

When the year began, many homeless advocates questioned whether enough resources were reaching those in need. For far too long Orange County had been slow, reactive and far too restrained in our response to the problem. Shortly after taking over as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, I acknowledged the county’s failures and promised a new direction.

Now, we are working together across county departments, and with cities, breaking down bureaucratic silos that inhibit access to service. We are also welcoming support from local, state, federal, and non-profit partners.

Our new direction is backed by a substantial commitment of resources across a burgeoning system of care. Thus far, in 2018, Orange County has allocated more than $189 million toward homeless-related programs. In March, the Board of Supervisors approved $70.5 million in state Mental Health Services Act funds to house homeless people living with mental illness in supportive housing programs. It was “the single largest appropriation ever committed by the County to fight homelessness” and propelled 259 new mental health and special needs housing units currently in progress.

To meet our immediate shelter needs, we supplemented the county’s Courtyard homeless shelter in Santa Ana by extending the emergency shelters at two National Guard Armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton and adding capacity at SAFEPlace women’s shelter, American Family Housing shelter for couples, and Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter.

In addition to emergency shelter programs, we have invested $26 million to build the first county-owned mental health facility. The 44,556-square-foot facility will allow individuals to get help in one place — accessing emergency mental health crisis stabilization, drug abuse treatment, and residential psychiatric care. We also approved $2.4 million for recovery residence service to provide safe and drug-free housing for those seeking to get clean.

To create more housing in the short term, we are piloting new projects to encourage private landlords to make units available to rent to homeless individuals by providing them with financial protection. The county contributed $250,000 in seed funding to support the Orange County United Way’s Landlord Incentive program. Over the next year, the pilot project will provide as many as 55 housing placements by removing financial barriers, such as providing application expense reimbursement, security deposits, damage claims assistance, etc., which inhibit access to stable housing.

Orange County has also recognized the importance of linking people to supportive services. More than $5.4 million has been committed toward a multi-service center. Operated by the Mental Health Association of Orange County, the program connects homeless mentally ill adults with behavioral health assessment, counseling, hygiene kits, and provides transportation to reach necessary behavioral health and medical services.

Just as important as coordinating services, our community is embracing cooperation among local, state and federal governments to create more permanent supportive housing as part of our long-term solution. The County of Orange and the Association of California Cities-Orange County co-sponsored Assembly Bill 448, which enabled the creation of the Orange County Housing Finance Trust. Orange County Senators John Moorlach and Pat Bates with Assemblymembers Sharon Quirk-Silva and Tom Daly fast tracked the bill, which will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funding to develop affordable and supportive housing for both working families and those who are homeless. We are also working with the business community and philanthropic leaders to supplement public funds with private donations.

Cities have contributed, too. The Santa Ana City Council recently expedited the building of a new temporary 200-bed homeless shelter, called the Link Shelter. The cities of Anaheim and Orange, along with others are working on shelter and mental health facilities, which should come on line in the near future.

We haven’t solved the problem. There’s still more work to be done. Thousands of individuals lack a safe place to sleep every night, and tens of thousands more are a paycheck away from losing their homes. But for the first time in decades, Orange County has developed a responsible path forward and comprehensive approach to combating this national problem.

For more read the op-ed in the OC Register

Andrew Do is Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.