Orange County Homeless Solutions Will Require Shelters and Housing First

By: Tim Houchen
April 10, 2019 —

For the past several months, there has been copious discussion regarding the establishment of emergency homeless shelters throughout Orange County as a result of ongoing lawsuits filed by homeless advocates against the county and most of OC’s cities.

So has the conversation grown surrounding the topic of where to place more than 3,000 unsheltered homeless persons every night? The overall response has been a higher level of urgency and a greater commitment by cities to create shelter beds.

One could say however, that urgency and commitment of cities to build shelters differs in terms depending on the geographical situation of the city itself. In the northern and central Service Planning Areas (SPA’s), shelter plans have moved forward at breakneck speed, or at least faster than expected by many advocates.

In the south SPA, not so much.

It could be that Mayors from South County are taking advantage of a little extra time given to them since they were not required to attend Judge Carters April 2nd court hearing. That would be understandable if that were the case.

Much of the recent chatter has focused mainly on opening homeless shelters so that some of our cities can begin enforcing their camping ordinances once again. While providing shelters may be a quick-fix to solving the problems of visible homelessness for now, shelters alone are not part of a solution that would end homelessness permanently and prepare our cities for any spikes in the homeless population in the future.

Homeless shelters are only one element to any critical response to homelessness within our communities and shelters are but one component of a homeless system of care built by our county called a Continuum of Care.

What is a Continuum of Care?

Continuum of Care (CoC) is a regional or local planning body that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals. CoCs represent communities of all kinds, including major cities, suburbs and rural areas in all 50 states.

According to HUD, a CoC is “a community plan to organize and deliver housing and services to meet the specific needs of people who are homeless as they move to stable housing and maximize self-sufficiency according to the Housing First approach. It includes action steps to end homelessness and prevent a return to homelessness.” HUD identifies four necessary parts of a continuum:

  • Outreach, intake, and assessment in order to identify service and housing needs and provide a link to the appropriate level of both;
  • Emergency shelter to provide an immediate and safe alternative to sleeping on the streets, especially for homeless families with children;
  • Transitional housing with supportive services to allow for the development of skills that will be needed once permanently housed; and
  • Permanent and permanent supportive housing to provide individuals and families with an affordable place to live with services if needed.
Entrance into the SB 2 Overlay Zone at the Rancho San Clemente Business Park.

To provide shelter without providing the remaining CoC components is a set-up for failure. Today’s homeless shelter is the intake point or entrance to our system. A critical assessment of the needs of each client are determined there and referrals to vital resources and services are made at the shelter, all under one roof.

Each shelter serves as a headquarters for addressing homelessness in your community whether the shelter is located within your city or in a regional facility located elsewhere that serves your city and others.

Homeless shelters must have low-barriers and must be without pre-conditions to enter in order that all sectors of homelessness can be assisted there effectively. Allowances must be made for homeless families, youth, individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues as well as those having pets. Every shelter serves as an entrance from the streets with an exit into some type of housing.

In fact, 30 days in a shelter with an exit into housing is a goal that has been reached by many successful CoC’s across America. Let’s get it straight, any exit from a shelter that does not lead to permanent housing is an exit back into the streets. A person living in a homeless shelter is still homeless, but a person living in a home is not.

This potential shelter site is in the
SB 2 Overlay Zone within the Rancho San Clemente Business Park

As time passes, with no exits into housing, the shelter will fill to capacity and a time limit might be imposed on clients concerning how long they can stay there. If there are others being turned away from the shelter because it’s full, a client might have to give up his bed so that someone else can enter the shelter in his place. The client gives up his bed, but without some type of housing for him he would wind up back on the streets.

Why is Housing Important?

An argument could be made that more shelters could be built making it unnecessary to create housing. The truth is that building shelters and the cost of operating them over time is very expensive. Besides, residents in cities across Orange County have come out strong in opposition of placing shelter facilities in or near their neighborhoods. Where will we build more?

This is the formula for perpetuating homelessness and perpetuating the cycle of criminalization of homeless people. When our client is forced from the shelter back onto the streets, it puts him at-risk of violating camping ordinances and our city at-risk of further litigation if he is criminalized for having nowhere else to go.

The San Clemente Public Library is a gem and a high-value public space, but like other libraries, it sometimes too is an example of a homeless “conflict zone”

This report from UCI studies the cost of homelessness in Orange County and finds that it is by far less expensive for taxpayers to place chronically homeless individuals in Permanent Supportive Housing than to leave
them on the streets.

It may not be necessary to build more shelters if we provide sufficient amounts of affordable housing aimed at income levels consistent with the low and very-low incomes that we can expect homeless persons to earn. The process of stabilizing their income so they can afford housing begins while they are in the shelter

Orange County is currently in the grips of a nation-wide housing crisis that is compounded by the fact that all 34 cities are to some degree behind in their commitments to provide affordable housing especially for those in the low and very-low income levels. By increasing the number of affordable units in proportion to the number of people that need them, we increase the chances of eliminating visible homelessness in our communities and reducing the need for shelters in the future.

This is a potential site, however not in the SB 2 Overlay. This site is located adjacent to a city facility on Avenida Pico.

It may some day happen that perhaps only one shelter would be sufficient to serve in each one of three county SPA’s. However, each city must use its affordable housing projects as a tool for an overall county-wide solution to homelessness. Housing is a key element and the cornerstone of our county Continuum. Housing can get people off of the streets.

What is Housing First?

Initially, let’s look at what Housing First is not. It is not a program, so let’s get that out of the way first.

Housing first is an approach with the philosophy that if people have a stable home, they are in a better position to achieve other goals, including health, recovery and well-being than when they are homeless.

Housing First was adopted by the administration of President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990’s. Today, it is still at the forefront of our Federal governments response to homelessness and a condition tied to Federal funding that our county receives to eliminate homelessness. A Housing First philosophy is based on three specific yet simple aims.

1.) make occurrences of homelessness rare and brief
2.) help people who experience homelessness obtain permanent housing quickly
3.) help people access the care and support needed to maintain their housing and achieve a better quality of life

Achieving these aims is impossible for one program alone. Rather it requires a variety of programs and services including homeless outreach, case management support, emergency shelters, health care, income supports, employment services, housing and more.

But, it’s not enough that these types of programs simply exist, they need to work as part of a functioning system in order to help people achieve these aims. That’s why Housing First is ingrained into our county strategies for ending homelessness. In order for our CoC to function properly, collaboration is necessary at all levels of government right on down to our communities and neighborhoods.

No two people experience homelessness the same way. Some have a mental health diagnosis, some do not. Some are living with addiction, others are not. Some spend each night in shelter, while others sleep in doorways, cars, or encampments.

Yet, everyone experiencing homelessness shares one thing in common: they do not have a safe or appropriate place to live.

For information that you need to know,
go to the library!

Related Articles —

No Change in Climate for San Clemente’s Homeless

San Clemente: Eager to Enforce Homeless Camping Ordinance, But Slow to Provide Shelter Plan

California’s Race to Build Housing

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