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Is Orange County turning the corner on homelessness?

In April 2017, federal Judge David O. Carter marched through the 2-mile-long homeless encampment stretched out along the Santa Ana River flood control channel in the heart of Orange County and declared, “No one’s got good answers to this." 

But nearly a year and several lawsuits later, a wave of efforts to reduce chronic homelessness is sweeping through Orange County, making a once-elusive goal seem reachable.

In the final days of February, under Judge Carter’s watch, the last of the tents were cleared from the riverbed encampment and some 700 homeless people were placed in motels.

Meanwhile, dozens of OC’s top business and civic leaders have pledged to help find — and fund — housing and support to the county’s estimated 2,500 homeless people who sleep outside on any given night. 

The business community in tourism- and services-dependent Orange County has a vested interest in reducing street homelessness. And civic leaders are increasingly seeing their private-sector counterparts as key allies in eliminating barriers to housing the homeless, including NIMBYism. 

Advocates and experts on homelessness say they’re hopeful that Orange County could be turning a corner. 

"Judge Carter and this whole saga of removing people from the riverbed has shaken things up,” said Eve Garrow, homeless policy expert at the ACLU of Southern California. 

Carter presided over a settlement in February in which the county provided minimum 30-day motel stays for homeless people who were living along the riverbed along with gift cards for food. Over the course of a week, individuals and families — some of whom had been homeless for decades — packed up their belongings and boarded buses bound for hotels scattered across the county, as far away as San Clemente.

Bird's-eye view of an area behind Angel Stadium before and after the homeless encampment was cleared in February 2018. Video footage courtesy of Orange County Public Works.

Over the next few weeks, county social workers are tasked with assessing each person’s needs, with the ultimate goal of finding long-term housing and support services for everyone. It’s an unprecedented experiment that could, if successful, make OC a model for other cities struggling with how to dismantle large homeless encampments humanely. 

Or, it could fail spectacularly. If permanent housing can’t be found for those displaced, the chronically homeless could be dispersing across the county to set up new camps on OC’s parklands and sidewalks.  

Garrow and other observers have noted that the rushed process has led to some snags. Some people have been evicted from motels for behaviors stemming from mental health and substance abuse problems. 

"It wasn’t totally thought out and wasn’t totally coordinated,” Garrow said. Still, she praised the county for providing motel rooms with running water and other basic necessities that people camped along the river didn’t have.

"To do that in a really compassionate way also says something about our county,” Garrow said.

Serena Welch washes clothes outside of public bathrooms near the Santa Ana River in Orange County. She's been living in a tent near the river for four years.
Jill Replogle
Serena Welch washes clothes outside of public bathrooms near the Santa Ana River in Orange County. She's been living in a tent near the river for four years.

Homelessness is expensive and bad for business

While the county scrambles to come up with a mid- and long-term plan for the former riverbed homeless, OC’s private sector is stepping up to offer help at a scale not seen here before, observers say. 

Last week, Orange County United Way, along with prominent business, faith and civic leaders, launched a coordinated push to house the homeless. The initiative, "United to End Homelessness,” was borne out of a UC Irvine-led study that found it’s twice as expensive to care for a homeless person on the street as it is to get them into permanent supportive housing.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen that there’s been a high level leadership group of, for the most part, business leaders who are finally wanting to pay attention to this issue and feel it needs to be solved,” said Carla Vargas, chief operating officer of Orange County United Way. 

The initiative’s “leadership council” includes executives from the Angels, Disneyland and developer FivePoint Holdings, among other major players in OC's business world.

As tents began to multiply along the Angels' fence line last year, executives expressed concern to county and Anaheim city officials that homeless people were engaging in potentially dangerous activity on or near the property, including trying to hot-wire the “A" and starting campfires near propane tanks.

Also last year, Anaheim removed bus benches near Disneyland after receiving complaints from surrounding businesses of homeless people taking over the benches and drinking and smoking pot at bus shelters, Anaheim spokesperson Mike Lyster said.

Last week, the United Way brought a group of business and civic leaders to OC from central Florida, where a similar initiative is credited with helping cut the number of homeless people by half in five years. The idea was to pitch OC business leaders on why they should get involved. 

Andrae Bailey, who led the Florida initiative and now consults with cities on homeless issues, said central Florida, which includes Orlando, was in a similar situation to Orange County: homelessness was threatening to affect the region’s reputation and its lifeblood — tourism.

“There’s nothing more important than your community’s brand,” Bailey said. He mentioned a recent cable news segment about the riverbed homeless camp in OC. 

“Your community was not being talked about because of Disneyland or your weather or the incredible work you’re doing on a bunch of different fronts, people were talking about you because of homelessness, and that’s where we were in Orlando.”

Attorney Brooke Weitzman announces a federal lawsuit against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange for allegedly violating homeless people's rights.
Jill Replogle
Attorney Brooke Weitzman announces a federal lawsuit against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange for allegedly violating homeless people's rights.

Who will pay to house the homeless? 

The central Florida initiative recently launched a $7 million pilot program that seeks to get chronically homeless individuals into permanent supportive housing. It's funded largely by the nonprofit Florida Hospital group. 

Leaders of the OC homeless initiative say they also plan to leverage funds from the private sector. The Association of California Cities - Orange County is working on a business plan to fund 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing using a combination of state, federal and private funds. The units would be spread throughout the county, with each city responsible for a quota depending upon its share of the overall homeless population. 

At a recent meeting of city leaders, Anaheim businessman Bill Taormina announced his intent to raise money from OC’s most deeply-rooted — and deep-pocketed — families to help fund the initiative. 

While Eve Garrow from the ACLU says private money in welcome, she warns that it’s not necessarily sustainable.  

“I think we need to get the ball rolling somehow,” she said. "But if it were you, if it were your family, you would probably want housing to be paid for by a dedicated funding stream.”

Garrow and other advocates for the homeless have long criticized county leaders for failing to use discretionary funds to address homelessness. Up until recently the county has relied almost exclusively on state and federal pass-through funds to pay for housing, mental health and other services for the homeless. 

During a court hearing in February, Judge Carter noted the county’s failure to allocate its own dollars to address homelessness and accused county leaders of “chipmunking away” federal funding. 

It takes a county to combat NIMBYism

Though dwarfed by neighboring Los Angeles, Orange County’s homeless problem is among the worst in the nation for a region of its size. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, OC had the second largest homeless population in the country in 2017 among small regions and cities, behind Honolulu.

It also had the second highest rate of unsheltered veterans among similarly sized regions and cities — 88 percent of homeless veterans in OC last year were sleeping outside.

Orange County United Way hopes to better people's understanding of homelessness in order to get community buy-in for a Housing First approach. 

Backers of the new homeless initiatives in OC hope convincing the general public that most homeless people aren’t homeless by choice is key to easing public opposition to measures like building temporary shelters and creating permanent supportive housing.

"This NIMBY issue is going to be fierce," said Heather Stratman, CEO of the Association of California Cities - OC. “We can plan and get the money and entitle projects, and communities can be very unaccepting of this. And so one of the strategies is to get the business community engaged, so that the business community starts to stand up and say, ‘No, we need this for our community. This is the right thing to do. This Not in My Backyard mentality is actually harming us.'"

Orange County United Way has launched a public relations campaign aimed at educating OC residents and leaders about the causes of homelessness and championing permanent supportive housing as a solution for the chronically homeless.

United Way CEO Sue Parks said there seems to be a common perception in Orange County that the homeless population is largely from out of town, and that many have been evicted from sober living homes (the group recently launched a survey to better gauge perceptions of homelessness). 

But the UC Irvine study found that nearly 70 percent of the county’s homeless have lived here for at least a decade. “These people are our neighbors, these people have grown up here, they are part of our community, and we need to have that common understanding of what’s going on,” Parks said. 

The study also found that the top three causes of homelessness are unemployment, the high cost of housing and family problems, including domestic violence. Alcohol and drug abuse and mental health problems followed. 

Public officials in recent years have faced a barrage of complaints from residents about homeless people sleeping in parks, along bike trails and on sidewalks. In the Santa Ana Civic Center, where at times nearly 200 homeless people have slept in tents, lawyers and patrons of the adjacent law library have complained about safety concerns, and of discarded hypodermic needles and human feces around the outside the building. 

A homeless encampment located around the Santa Ana Civic Center in Orange County.
Jill Replogle/KPCC
A homeless encampment located around the Santa Ana Civic Center in Orange County.

As a result, the city of Santa Ana has tightened restrictions on homeless campers in the center’s Plaza of the Flags. The city also shut down the county’s only needle exchange program, which operated out of the civic center. 

Last fall, more than 15,000 people signed a petition on demanding that authorities clean up homeless encampments in OC and enforce anti-camping laws in public places.

“We support helping the homeless who are willing to do what’s necessary to become independent, productive members of society, but those who repeatedly refuse help cannot be allowed to camp and live on the Santa Ana River trail or in our city parks,” the petition read. 

At the same time, proposals to place temporary shelters on county-owned land in various OC cities have been met with swift opposition by local officials and residents. 

Eve Garrow from the ACLU praised the United Way’s effort to change the narrative around homelessness.

"It’s the foundation of everything else, that we change hearts and minds,” she said. "So that when people look at a homeless encampment we have an appropriate reaction, which is moral outrage that we would let people live in these conditions in one of the richest nations in the world, instead of feelings of fear and revulsion.” 

Andrae Bailey from the Florida homeless initiative said education was vital to helping that community reduce homelessness. "We had to have a real conversation about chronic homelessness," he said. “Don’t confuse NIMBYism with a community like Orlando that didn’t understand homelessness. (In the past) we didn’t help people get off the streets the way we do now because we believed that they wanted to be there.”

In every city's backyard

Finally, OC leaders say, getting the county’s constellation of local governments — including 34 cities — to work together on homelessness is central to success. In recent years, discussions on addressing homelessness and affordable housing in the county have often been marked by grumblings that not every jurisdiction is pulling its own weight. 

Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner confirmed that. He said the United Way initiative, which he’s part of, feels different.

“It’s the first time that I've seen the county, the surrounding cities, organizations come together under one umbrella,” he said. 

A city like Irvine might be a test case for the Association of California Cities - OC’s ability to successfully lobby its members to fulfill their target quota of permanent supportive housing. Wagner said Irvine had been “blessed” to have few homeless people on city streets, saving local leaders from the tough political quagmires faced by officials in cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana.

"So we’ve been able to step back and say this is a county-wide problem, but it’s not one that the residents of Irvine are yelling at us about,” he said.

Wagner was unaware of the 226 units of permanent supportive housing that the Association of California Cities - OC has determined that Irvine should provide under its plan, so he said he couldn’t comment on whether he thought the city could deliver. 

But, he said, if there’s a way to reduce homelessness in Orange County, he wants to be part of it. 

“If we’re going to be walking in the right direction, I want to be involved and I want Irvine to be involved,” he said.

Permanent supportive housing goals for Orange County cities under ACC-OC plan

City % of Population Target No. of Housing Units
Aliso Viejo 1.6 42
Anaheim 11.2 303
Brea 1.4 37
Buena Park 2.6 71
Costa Mesa 3.6 96
Cypress 1.6 42
Dana Point 1.1 29
Fountain Valley 1.8 48
Fullerton 4.5 120
Garden Grove 5.5 149
Huntington Beach 6.2 167
Irvine 8.4 226
Laguna Beach 0.7 20
Laguna Hills 1.0 27
Laguna Niguel 2.1 56
Laguna Woods 0.5 14
La Habra 1.9 52
Lake Forest 2.7 72
La Palma 0.5 14
Los Alamitos 0.4 10
Mission Viejo 3.0 83
Newport Beach 2.7 72
Orange 4.4 119
Placentia 1.6 44
Rancho Santa Margarita 1.5 41
San Clemente 2.0 55
San Juan Capistrano 1.1 31
Santa Ana 10.7 289
Seal Beach 0.8 21
Stanton 1.2 33
Tustin 2.6 69
Villa Park 0.2 5
Westminster 2.9 79
Yorba Linda 2.1 57
Unincorporated 4 107
Total   2700

Source: Association of California Cities - Orange County