Orange County delivers independent oversight of homeless response

By Supervisor Andrew Do

Orange County has committed hundreds of millions of dollars towards combatting homelessness.

Shouldn’t taxpayers receive independent assurances that those funds are being well-spent?

Last month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved my proposal for the Office of Independent Review to examine the county’s homeless response. This independent audit will ensure oversight and accountability as the county works to address our community’s greatest public policy issue. 

Without question, homelessness is the county’s most pressing public policy challenge. Moreover, the issue is a systemic problem that requires a comprehensive response – exactly the type of subject the Office of Independent Review is charged with addressing.

Additionally, the proposal also takes into consideration the recommendations outlined by the Orange County Grand Jury in its report, “Office of Independent Review: What’s Next?”

“OIR should act pro-actively, finding and averting emerging crises in all five law-enforcement-related agencies,” the Orange County Grand Jury wrote in its 2015-2016 report “These systemic audits, if allowed, have the potential to uncover developing problems and take corrective action before they reach a critical stage.”

Created to ensure accountability and review systemic issues, the Office of Independent Review is also charged with identifying and mitigating the county’s exposure to liability. In this respect, the Office of Independent Review will help tackle the ongoing litigation before U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, which continues to affect the county’s efforts to provide services to the homeless and prevent the return of unsafe homeless encampments.

Although the most high-profile, the case before Judge Carter is just one of several homeless-related lawsuits involving the county. Both the cities of Santa Ana and Irvine have taken steps to sue the county over its homeless response.  

In a recent editorial, the Register argued that the Office of Independent Review should focus on a limited scope: the violation of constitutional rights by local law enforcement agencies. By focusing on homelessness, the Office of Independent Review will fulfill this mandate and the office’s expanded mission to review the Probation Department and Social Services Agency.

Homeless individuals are the most vulnerable to abuses of their constitutional rights when interacting with law enforcement. One need only recall the tragic death of Kelly Thomas, whose interaction with law enforcement was unquestionably shaped by his experience of homelessness. At one time, the Register acknowledged this critical nexus between homelessness and law enforcement.

“Perhaps the confrontation would have gone differently if Mr. Thomas, 37, had not been a schizophrenic transient,” the Register observed just four years ago.

As a former prosecutor, I know that many homeless individuals cycle in and out of Orange County’s criminal justice system for petty crimes and drug offenses. That can put them in contact with all five departments under the Office of Independent Review’s jurisdiction: the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney, Public Defender, Probation Department, and Social Services Agency. Not only is homelessness the most pressing systemic problem, it may the only public policy issue that connects all five of these departments.

Finally, the Office of Independent Review can provide credible and independent answers to some of the public’s most pressing questions. For example, my constituents in the City of Santa Ana, rightly, question whether law enforcement agencies are engaging in “homeless dumping”. There’s no doubt that the City of Santa Ana bears a disproportionate burden of this county and statewide problem. Santa Ana residents deserve to know if law enforcement policies are contributing to this burden.

In 2004, San Francisco embarked on a bold 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness. After spending approximately $1.5 billion, an independent investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle concluded that the city’s homeless problem was just as bad, if not worse.

Here in Orange County, we want to avoid the same fate.

We want to know what’s working to get people off the streets and on to a path of self-sufficiency. More importantly, we need to identify the programs that aren’t effective – to stop millions of taxpayer dollars from being wasted on well-intentioned but ineffective programs.

Andrew Do, a former prosecutor, is Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.