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By Breeana Greenberg
The County Board of Supervisors largely agreed with a report by the OC Grand Jury that found South Orange County needs a regional emergency shelter for the homeless. One finding, however, that the two entities didn’t see eye to eye on was whether collaboration between the county and its cities on addressing homelessness has been inconsistent.
The supervisors voted unanimously during their meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 23, to approve the response—a requirement whenever a Grand Jury report makes recommendations for public agencies. The board’s responses ranged from agreeing with the jury’s findings, partially agreeing, disagreeing partially, to wholly disagreeing.
“The collaboration between the County of Orange, Orange County Continuum of Care and cities of Orange County has resulted in the creation of several shelters and services that better address sheltered homelessness,” the board said in its formal response to the Grand Jury’s recent findings on the county’s approach to homelessness.
While the 2022 Point-in-Time Count—the biennial count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals—showed an overall decrease from 2019, the Grand Jury concluded that efforts “do not go far enough to house all the homeless people living in Orange County.”
The OC Grand Jury highlighted four main shortcomings in the county’s efforts to address homelessness: the need for court-ordered treatment for mental illness and substance abuse; a lack of enough affordable housing for those exiting shelters; a lack of enough safe housing for youth aging out of foster care; and the absence of an emergency shelter in the South Service Planning Area (SPA).
The board agreed with the finding that cities in the South SPA lack a low-threshold emergency shelter. The board, in the response, acknowledged that there is “still a need for additional low-threshold emergency shelters,” despite the decrease in the number of unsheltered homeless individuals in South County identified in the 2022 Point-in-Time Count.
In response to the grand jury’s recommendation that South SPA cities should collaborate to fund a low-threshold emergency shelter, the county board stated that the recommendation requires further analysis.
The board stated that it will “always be willing to partner in establishing low-threshold shelters in the South SPA with South County cities”; however, opening a regional shelter will require collaboration between the county and cities.
The board added that the Continuum of Care has issued a request for proposals to provide emergency shelter operations and services across all three Service Planning Areas.
In response to the grand jury’s recommendation that the county, cities and the Continuum of Care collaborate to “encourage the development of (affordable housing) to individuals exiting the emergency shelters in Orange County,” the board wrote that such an initiative has been implemented.
The board pointed to 2,600 units of affordable and supportive housing that are either complete, under construction or in progress of funding. An additional resource for individuals exiting emergency shelters is the county’s Emergency Housing Voucher program, which, the board said, would provide 1,041 vouchers for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness.
Responding to the recommendation that the county, cities and the Continuum of Care needed to collaborate to increase housing opportunities for youth aging out of foster care by Dec. 1, the board stated that those efforts are already underway.
The county’s Office of Care Coordination applied for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the Youth Homelessness Demonstration program, which is “designed to reduce the number of transitional-aged youths experiencing homelessness through a coordinated community approach.”
The board disagreed wholly with the grand jury’s finding that collaboration between cities and the county has been inconsistent, resulting in “missed opportunities to end homelessness.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Supervisor Katrina Foley stated that she disagreed with the board’s response to this finding, adding that she would send her own response to the report in addition to the board’s.
“We’ve heard from so many mayors and city councilmembers about that issue,” Foley said. “I support the overall response, but I really am concerned about the response to finding No. 3. Even in the investigative hearing on homelessness that I held with Chairman (Doug) Chaffee, there was a consensus amongst the mayors that the county must do more to support the city efforts.”
“In the county’s 2020 performance audit on homelessness, there was a consensus amongst county staff and community stakeholders that among the 34 cities in the county, there are competing needs, priorities, political ideologies that hinder collaboration amongst the county and the constituent cities,” Foley continued.
Chaffee disagreed with Foley, arguing that the county itself is consistent in its approach to homelessness. Chaffee added that cities cannot have a uniform approach until they work together.
“What I see as an issue here is a consistent approach from the cities. The reason the North has been complimented (in the report) is its North SPA,” Chaffee said, adding: “As 11 cities, we’ve come together, their city managers meet monthly, and they appreciate the help the county has given them.”
The report also found that “too many of the homeless who are severely and persistently mentally ill and those with addiction issues end up incarcerated instead of more appropriate placements.”
The grand jury report also noted that ordinances criminalizing camping on public property or loitering “contributed to the incarceration of homeless individuals, including many suffering from mental illness and substance abuse issues.”
The board partially disagreed with this finding, stating that “it would be difficult to make a definitive statement that all (severely and persistently mentally ill) homeless individuals end up incarcerated versus appropriate placements,” as mental health diagnoses can range widely.
Additionally, the board noted that it launched the OC Cares initiative, which “focused on reducing recidivism in the Corrections System through diversion, data-driven decision-making and rehabilitative best practices.”
The grand jury also pointed to a lack of rental units available for homeless individuals leaving emergency shelters, “resulting in the majority returning to homelessness when leaving the shelters.”
In response, the board partially agreed with the jury’s finding, adding that individuals and families may experience delays and barriers to securing rental units. The board noted that it has invested in programs to help in finding and securing housing.
The board added that “these efforts have resulted in housing-focused emergency shelters, increased housing navigation and unit identification programming, and enhanced supportive services to assist people in securing permanent housing.”
Additionally, the grand jury recommended that the Continuum of Care fund programs in the 2022-23 fiscal year for “people with severe and persistent mental illness and addiction issues to receive supervised care and treatment.”
The board said that the recommendation “will not be implemented, because it is not warranted or is not reasonable,” adding that the Continuum of Care’s role does not “replicate or overlap programs that provide supervised care and treatment for people with severe and persistent mental illness and addiction issues.”
While the board said the county won’t fund such a program, plans are in the works, it said, to support the grand jury’s recommendation that a facility to house people with severe and persistent mental illness and addiction issues in a secure setting open by July 1, 2024 in coordination with the county’s cities.
By 2025, the county aims to develop 2,700 new supportive housing units in addition to the existing 1,273 that have been completed, are in progress of funding or under construction.
The Office of Care Coordination, Continuum of Care Board and the cities of Orange County are required to respond to the OC Grand Jury recommendations by Sept. 21.
Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at email@example.com