By C. Jayden Smith
A recent sweep of a homeless encampment near San Onofre State Beach in early May has again forced those without shelter to find another temporary living space, reflecting local government’s shortcomings in housing homeless people.
The second instance in as many years at that site has received criticism as a frivolous effort to improve the aesthetic of the area and nearby San Clemente without providing tangible efforts to guide those who were evacuated to a better future.
“State Parks, in collaboration with the City of San Clemente, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and outreach advocates, helped transition individuals experiencing homelessness out of the illegal encampment in the open-space area at San Onofre State Beach,” Scott Kibbey, the South Sector superintendent of the California Department of Parks and Recreation’s Orange Coast District, said of the incident in a statement.
Kibbey also stated that homeless persons were offered applications for future housing opportunities and critical support resources. Those reports were contrasted by that of local advocate Maura Mikulec, who was present along with other activists throughout the sweep’s process.
Mikulec commended the park rangers’ efforts to post notices, be respectful, and communicate with the more than a dozen people who were residing at the park. San Clemente’s own Community Outreach Worker, Karlie Hunter, was there as well, for anyone who needed her services, as the park inhabitants were far more connected to the city than with San Diego County, in which the park is located.
Hunter could not be reached for comment.
The services Kibbey mentioned included enrollments on the Orange County Housing Authority’s (OCHA) Coordinated Entry System, a waiting list that determines eligibility for housing assistance, hygiene kits, and ID vouchers, all of which do not lead to quick housing.
“When you’ve got 15 people, you’re not offering anything that’s going to take someone off the street then and there,” Mikulec said of the services’ efficacy. “You’re offering to engage with them and work towards something that can take months and years.”
The latest encampment sweep comes as recent data show how the countywide distribution of 557 emergency housing vouchers from the federal government has worked with mixed results.
The EHVs, funded through the American Rescue Plan Act that President Biden enacted in March 2021, were designed to assist persons experiencing or at risk of homelessness, seeking to flee circumstances such as domestic violence or human trafficking, or needing rental assistance to avoid housing instability.
Along with other public housing agencies (PHAs) nationwide, OCHA is required to partner with the county’s Continuum of Care (CoC), a collection of nonprofits and agencies, and other organizations to assist those most in need first, according to OCHA’s website.
Of the 557 vouchers in Orange County, 375 have been distributed, and 190 clients have successfully moved into a rental unit, according to Orange County Community Resources staff.
However, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s EHV Dashboard, which provides daily updates on leasing, issuances, and other related information, only 150 vouchers, or a unit utilization of 26.93%, had resulted in current leases as of Tuesday, May 24.
That utilization rate put the Orange County Housing Authority in the middle of the pack relating to California overall, which has a total utilization rate of 20.97% out of 17,174 total EHV awards.
The county ranks behind the cities of Garden Grove and Anaheim, both of which received separate EHVs and have seen 40.17% and 33.09%, respectively, of their voucher holders move into a rental unit.
OCCR Public Information Officer Mechelle Haines wrote in an email to San Clemente Times that staffers are working to distribute all the vouchers through efforts to recruit landlords and provide incentives to support households.
The Orange County Health Care Agency, a separate department, has also contracted with Human Options, Mercy House, PATH, Families Forward, and OC United Way to provide support services and act as housing navigators for clients.
However, Mikulec has raised several issues she has witnessed related to the program’s efficacy.
Mikulec claimed in a separate email to SC Times that a vast majority of people are still on the streets, nine months after people first began receiving their vouchers—a point echoed by the results of the recent Point-in-Time Count that reported 422 unsheltered persons in the county’s South Service Planning Area, including a total of 81 in San Clemente.
She cited the inability of housing navigators contracted to work with the county to find available apartments or rental units, to push clients to have all their necessary information ready, and to help in other ways as other reasons for people still being on the streets.
“One person I worked with had a housing navigator who only applied to one apartment in four months’ time,” Mikulec wrote. “The housing navigator never brought one apartment to the person. The only apartments applied for were brought to the navigator’s attention by me. I applied to two myself, because the navigator was never timely enough.”
Regarding the navigators, Mikulec spoke in a separate interview about how there simply were too few to do the job properly and that their caseload was too high.
“There’s so many problems, and they should do more hand-holding,” she said. “But they can’t. There’s just not enough of them.”
OCHCA monitors the performance of the agencies that received service contracts, and it is working closely to ensure the navigators have all the necessary technical assistance and support, OCCR staff wrote.
Based on local community needs, according to Haines, the Orange County CoC identified target populations where the EHV program could assist. Those included individuals of adult-only households, families (households with at least one child), veterans, transitional youth (aged 18-24), reentry and exiting facilities, survivors of domestic violence and move-on strategy, which supports households that have previously experienced homelessness.
The CoC also uses the Coordinated Entry System (CES) to determine whether an individual or family qualifies, providing supporting documentation to OCHA.
“In addition to the target populations, there was prioritization to assist those experiencing the longest lengths of homelessness or at the highest risk of experiencing homelessness,” Haines wrote.
Mikulec questioned how clients were chosen, however, and cited a significant number of people who have not yet received EHVs despite living with severe mental illnesses. She added that the CES is not exhaustive, if not flawed from the beginning, and does not list people who have been homeless for many years.
“That is a failure of outreach (current but more so past), who should be ‘capturing’ everyone,” she wrote.
In response to a question regarding how the voucher distribution could improve, Haines wrote that the county’s program has continually been executed under the premise of HUD’s intentions for public housing agencies to work with local CoCs to establish target populations based on local needs.
After the EHV leases end, the landlord and tenant can renew the lease, or the tenant can move to another unit, according to OCCR, but the rental assistance will continue as long as the household is eligible.
Housing Stabilization Services, available for 12 months after a client leases a suitable unit, were also included in the service contracts.
“Housing Stabilization Services support the participant’s transition into housing through the development of a housing stabilization plan; connections to long-term supportive services and mainstream benefits; and ongoing training and support on responsible tenancy to sustain long-term housing,” Haines wrote.
Though not a full assessment of the EHV program over the past year, the county’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) evaluated the initiative’s initial performance in its Permanent Supportive Housing & Other Permanent Housing Goals & Outcomes Report, which analyzed data from Feb. 1, 2021 to Jan. 31, 2022.
The report assessed how a number of countywide projects met goals such as prioritizing clients experiencing homelessness, helping adults increase their incomes, and successfully matching households to a housing provider.
Compared to the cities of Garden Grove and Anaheim’s housing agencies, who met 63% and 50% of their goals, respectively, the OCHA came in at 40%.
Mikulec believed that clients should receive permanent supportive housing, as they will struggle to remain housed after the stabilization services eventually end.
“When (and or if) these people fall out of their housing, people will conclude that ‘housing first’ doesn’t work, when the problem was inadequate support and give people the wrong ‘product,’ ” she wrote.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.