Homelessness is a nationwide problem that our city government representatives seem to be overlooking. We ship hundreds of millions of dollars to relieve other countries’ crises and disasters but we seem to forget our focus on our own needy at home. We have seniors, the mentally challenged, families, veterans, young adults, and children all living “underground” and I am using underground as a euphemism. We seem to just seem to overlook and step over them and pretend they don’t exist.
Within Orange County, an estimated 4300 individuals are currently homeless, according to a count performed this year. This marks a significant decrease from the 2011 estimate of 6939 homeless persons. However, those numbers may not provide a trustworthy comparison due to the County having changed its counting methods this past year. Whether four thousand or seven thousand though, one thing is clear… the number is large and more effective strategies must be implemented to deal with this issue.
That recent count was part of a Federally-mandated report that counties must provide, as part of an effort to end homelessness locally by locality. Most places have set 2020 as a target for ending local homelessness but due to getting off to a mysteriously late start, Orange County does not currently have a set target date. Many observers, including homeless advocates, argue that these “point-in-time” counts, as they’re called, are notoriously unscientific and unreliable, due to the counts lacking the number of volunteers needed to cover such a large area like Orange County in a short period of time. I believe the recent account of our unemployed or under employed is attributed to the accuracy of these numbers.
How can you count people if they have no residence? What has happened to the host of families that have lost their homes or apartments due to unemployment? And finally, how is it possible to count people if they are not receiving any financial assistance, through government or state programs?
The controversy over counting methods take away from the greater issue at hand… what can be done about the problem? The Federal HUD annually gives $16 million to Orange County specifically for homeless assistance… is money such as this being used wisely? What other policies are being implemented?
Unfortunately, like many other places around the country, the standard response to homelessness has been to sweep it under the rug or even outright turn a blind eye to the destitute. For example, in October 2012, Costa Mesa Mayor Eric Bever proposed closing down the town’s soup kitchen due to the perception that it attracts homeless persons from all locales. Our own Mayor of Irvine, which has been trying to fit in his busy schedule a trip to Korea fully paid for by a “business”, in order to facilitate a “new” sister city in Korea. Instead of entertaining and cannoodling, maybe the Mayor himself should consider the local mission in Tustin, yes Tustin, not Irvine. Mayor Choi may want any further offers from “businesses” to pay for his travels to lend a helping hand to the local community shelter, Meals on Wheels and medical clinic. Still, we have a wait list for “at risk” seniors to receive a hot meal, in one of the most affluent cities in the state, shameful.
The Irvine Police department, who probably have more contact with the homeless than any other organization, often have to follow public policies that “criminalize” homelessness, either placing such individuals under arrest or escorting them to the next town’s borders… bouncing these individuals back and forth. Sometimes this leads to absolutely horrible consequences, such as the infamous 2011 death of mentally-ill homeless man Kelly Thomas, beaten to death by six police officers.
This is not to say that every locale has mishandled the issue. The small city of Stanton, in partnership with the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, has decreased its homeless population due to the donation of apartments to be used for transitional housing and other assistance. They also took the revolutionary step of actually speaking to homeless people, finding out about each person’s situation, in other words, treating these human beings like actual human beings. Mayor David Shawver explained his town’s progress with the simple statement that he and his coworkers believe “each city is responsible for its care of the homeless.” If only the leadership of every locale had such common sense, widespread progress could finally be realized. Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon hoped to replicate this successful partnership in other cities but was mystifyingly rebuffed. He mentioned that of his proposals to places such as Costa Mesa and Anaheim, “They didn’t even listen to us”. This would be all well and good if those cities had zero homeless residents but they obviously don’t, which leads me to believe their leadership is either happy with thousands of homeless persons or simply just doesn’t care.
Little is said about Illumination Foundation in Irvine, I would like to hear more from our own City Council and Mayor about their policies on the homeless. Within Stanton, several families have been able to get back on their feet due to that town’s sensible policies. The Talbutt family, consisting of a young couple and their two young children, ran into bad luck when the husband lost his job and had trouble finding another one. Rebecca Talbutt, who was raising the children at home while studying toward a career as a medical assistance also searched for work but was unable to find something in the difficult market. Thanks to the Illumination Foundation in Stanton, the Talbutts can continue their job searches without having to face the dreadful worry of wondering where to provide shelter for their children.
Granted, not all homeless people are simply families who ran into bad luck. Many suffer from mental ailments and others simply do not want help or have even given up hope that their lives could ever turn around. Even in progressive Stanton, arrests have been made. On the bright side, there have also been dialogues, leading to some of the “hardcore” homeless finally accepting offers to give transitional housing a try.
As for myself, right here in Irvine, I will occasionally see whole families outside of a grocery store, sitting in a park, or just walking up the main streets of the city. I will stop and ask if they need assistance like a place to stay or food; in one particular case a woman was walking on one of our major thoroughfares, needing to get to the train station, which was quite a distance away, so I gave her a ride. It was a humbling experience; she rambled on in the back seat admiring and talking endlessly to the two stuffed animals that I had in the back for my dogs; the woman called them “her babies”. How sad I felt for this woman… she reminded me of the story; My Fair Lady’ but without the happy ending. Tattered and scared, she didn’t understand why her family did not visit her and why she now drifts through Orange County without a permanent address.
We arrived at the train station. As the woman gathered her things, my daughter helped and they struck up a conversation. She admired my daughter’s kindness and my daughter listened to her intently as she went in and out of reality. She asked for the stuffed animals, insisting that they were her new found babies and we offered her a large cozy blanket to cover her “babies”. She blissfully went into the station and began talking to anyone who would listen about why her family is not there anymore; it was sad and before driving off we made sure we alerted station workers that she may need some help. I often wonder where these wonderful people will stay, how will they take care of themselves? Our faith based organizations and neighborhood churches had stated that more information is needed about what can be done to help “our”, not somebody else’s dispossessed people. Most stated the police typically escort the homeless out to the city border, following the awful philosophy that our city is “not the place for the homeless to be seen”. Outside the border of Irvine, in Tustin lies The Village of Hope, which is the closest place to receive counseling, medical, dental, meals, and shelter services.
Despite what many indifferent government leaders may wish to believe, the homeless problem is not going to disappear on its own. More effective policies, such as those employed in Stanton, can easily be put into place. A change in philosophy is required as well… homeless people need to be seen as complex human beings with extraordinary and individual requirements… they need the necessities and help and it truly doesn’t cost much… sometimes all they need is someone who will listen to them.