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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.

By Shawn Raymundo and Lillian Boyd

Several South Orange County cities are calling for a countywide approach when it comes to providing the homeless with shelters and other related services rather than addressing the issue on a regional basis.

According to a letter signed by seven South County mayors, the cities are looking to meet with Orange County Board Supervisor and Chairperson Lisa Bartlett while proposing to eliminate Service Planning Areas (SPAs)—the county’s region-based method to offer services for healthcare and homelessness.

The SPAs currently divide the county into three regions: north, central and south.

In the letter, which was sent to Bartlett’s office Wednesday, Aug. 14, the cities of Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano lament the use of SPAs, stating that homelessness is a “Countywide issue and the County needs to address it as such.”

“In executing its responsibility to provide for the indigent, the County cannot discriminate on the basis of locality,” the letter reads. “Yet, the current Service Planning Areas (SPAs) arbitrarily formed by the County, have created unnecessary boundaries that have negatively impacted the delivery of services to Orange County’s homeless population.”

Bartlett on Thursday, Aug. 15, responded to the letter, contending that the SPAs don’t prevent homeless individuals in South County from accessing services in the north and central regions.

“I understand and share the Cities’ frustrations regarding homelessness, it’s my community too,” Bartlett said in an emailed statement. “The cities need to know that the Service Planning Areas (SPA) do not restrict access to shelter and resources by region. We are working to set up a meeting with all South County cities, as we have in the past, to discuss our shared responsibilities addressing homelessness.”

The cities’ request comes just weeks after the finalization of a settlement agreement that requires the county to establish standards of care at county-contracted homeless shelters in the North and Central SPAs.

That settlement resolved a pair of lawsuits that a handful of homeless advocacy groups filed against the county in 2018 over the removal of an encampment in the Santa Ana riverbed.

The cities point out that other services offered countywide include “the Central Jail, Probation Department, Health Care Agency, and District Attorney’s Office,” and therefore, homelessness should also be a countywide issue.

Using figures from the 2019 Point in Time report, the cities make the argument that there are enough unused shelter beds in the north and central parts of the county to accommodate the South SPA’s homeless population, which amounted to 538 individuals when the count was conducted in late January.

“By eliminating the SPAs, and providing access to all County-funded, partially-funded and/or operated homeless shelter beds, you can positively impact the lives of 538 homeless and countless residents,” the letter stated.

Dana Point Mayor Joe Muller is one of the seven mayors who signed the letter to Bartlett.

“We need leadership to help solve this problem with us, not push it onto us,” Muller said. “SPAs are a bad idea. Why should there be picking and choosing of who gets access to county services?”

San Juan Mayor Brian Maryott shared Muller’s sentiments, stating that the southern cities are

“not going to be denied county shelters resources.”

The Point in Time Count is a biennial study in which volunteers help count the number of homeless in their area to determine the county’s indigent population. This year’s count was conducted Jan. 23-24.

“Your letter specifically focuses on shelter beds and indicates that elimination of Service Planning Areas would provide homeless individuals in South Orange County with greater access to shelter beds in other regions,” Bartlett said in her own letter responding to the mayors. “The existence of SPAs does not create the barrier that restricts access to shelter beds in other regions.

According to the report, the homeless population in South County is 763. In Orange County, as a whole, the homeless population is 6,860. There were 738 unused beds at emergency and transitional housing shelters throughout the county the night of Jan. 22. Of that total, 453 were at shelters in the North and Central SPAs, while there were 83 unused beds in the South SPA.

“Providing access to these beds to all homeless individuals in the County, irrespective of where they currently reside, would result in the largest positive step taken in addressing homelessness,” the cities stated. “Policy direction related to the SPA’s arbitrary boundaries have prohibited these beds from being provided Countywide.”

The cities conclude the letter by requesting a sit down meeting with Bartlett within the next two weeks to “to further discuss and finalize next steps.”

During the July 23 court hearing in which U.S. District Judge David O. Carter signed the agreement, Bartlett said the county is ready to work with the South SPA to bring resources to its homeless population.

“We’re very amenable to stepping up, from the county perspective, with additional services, with financial resources to make sure that we get something up and running when the cities step up to the plate and create some shelter capacity or something else in South County, so we can have a complete system throughout the whole county,” Bartlett told Carter.

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