The Homeless and Our Residents Deserve Better

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I’m not going to deny that better choices could be made that would prevent people from becoming homeless. But, focusing on these causes alone is a much too narrow an approach when searching for solutions. Given the obvious disparity in Orange County today between affordable housing and jobs that pay living wages, it demands a closer examination of societal causes as well. This is important because today the stakes are much higher and the consequences for poor decision-making can lead to homelessness for reasons unrelated to substance abuse or lack of motivation.

There is a gap that exists between housing affordability and income​ in Orange County. If not for this gap , perhaps the numbers of visibly homeless people in OC might be fewer. This disproportion in affordability and income is something that we need to look at very closely. Recent numbers are showing that the gap has been a contributing factor to increases in visible homelessness over the past few years and many  are concerned that the increases are coming at a time when we are seeing more and more young adults living in homeless encampments. 

In the past homeless populations consisted of mostly men over 50. Today in Orange County we are seeing more and more young people making the unfortunate decision to live in homeless encampments. Apparently, it’s much easier these days for our youth to choose being homeless than it is to be responsible. But, the worst fear is that while homelessness remains highly visible at the same time that the housing affordability gap is widening, a trend could be created thereby providing an alternative (albeit dysfunctional) lifestyle for our youth to choose in the future and putting at-risk the destruction of an entire generation. 

Now more than ever before, there is very dangerous threat to the quality-of-life that you and your neighbors have worked long and hard to establish. The reason why some people like myself are so critical of leaders in local government is that they have all of the same information about homelessness that we have, but they share only half the information with you and other taxpayers. We live in an age of information and technology and there is a ton of data on homelessness. They use the data that shows the rise in numbers to justify raising your taxes to pay for additional public safety measures, and now sheriff’s deputies on foot patrols walk the Santa Ana River Trail. The homeless population increased there before when Anaheim and Orange police were patrolling there, are sheriff’s now going to make any difference and at what cost? 

Supervisors, mayors, police chiefs, etc. get their information from the same places I get mine, as I mentioned they only tell you half of the story. The other side of this is that the data is telling us that it costs taxpayers more to leave homeless people on the street than it does to put them in supportive housing. The elected ones can’t make the wise decision because they fear political backlash at the polls in the next election. Politics is a career for these people especially those in Orange County. Face it, what politician ever won an election on a platform based on compassion for homeless people? One might argue, well there’s Andrew Do, but that really is a discussion for another day. 

It all boils down to the lack of political will as the reason why this problem of homelessness persists and if left unchecked it will increase exponentially with deadly consequence to the future of our county. It wouldn’t be much different here if Donald Trump himself were chairman of our Board of Supervisors. I’m sure that as an OC Supervisor even our President would see a greater need for a homeless solution here. Granted, it probably would not be a warm and fuzzy solution either, but this current cast of policy dictators similarly lack compassion and more than make up for it in ignorance.  The time for taking action is so long overdue and to wait any longer is to wait until the problem becomes mathematically unsolvable, at least in terms of the wallets of Orange County taxpayers.

Orange County has received more than $250,000,000 in federal funding over the last 20 years. Years ago the BOS created a plan for how they would spend that money to end homelessness as a condition of being awarded that money. The feds must have thought it was a real good plan because they just kept on giving the county more and more, year after year. Take a look around you, does it look like anybody that gave a s___ spent a quarter of a billion dollars to lift one finger enough to do something to at least slow it down?

Please take a look at OC’s Ten-Year Plan to End HomelessnessIf you look into the Ten-Year plan you will see that it was a strategy that looked good enough to satisfy the feds, but not good enough for the BOS to execute over the past ten or so years. If they had, perhaps we would not be faced with this problem today. If you are not interested in taking the time to investigate their plan, then just ponder along with me for one moment. Hmmm the county took in a quarter billion dollars over twenty years and they just opened their very first year-round shelter in May at Bridges Kraemer Place in Anaheim. Oh! and it was supposed to open with 200 beds, but we have only 100 currently available. So, we got half a homeless shelter for a quarter billion dollars. But, there is more. Tonight there there will be 100 homeless people wandering our streets that should have otherwise been in the care and responsibility of our county.

The annual cost to taxpayers in Orange County resulting from homelessness averages around $299,000,000 yearly. Our cities get stuck with the largest part of the total costs related to the frequent use of resources in health care and the criminal justice system. Homeless people get sick a lot and are frequent visitors of ER’s and they need ambulances to take them there and that ain’t cheap. Homeless people are more likely to contract chronic diseases meaning that when they go to a hospital it’s likely to be a longer than average stay and we all know how expensive that is.

Our cities make these silly laws that ban camping and cite persons’ experiencing homelessness for storing personal property in public space when there is no other place for them to go, it would be almost as effective if the city were to wave a magic wand or wish them to disappear into thin air. Instead cities pass an ordinance making the few things that they are able to do illegal. When you or your neighbors have a complaint about a homeless person or persons, you call the police and they spend an hour or more frisking the guy, running him for warrants and generally standing around doing nothing. If the warrant check comes back clean then they will likely just tell the guy to move somewhere else. If he is not willing to comply they might write him a citation for camping or for the storage of his incredible amount of junk-like stuff. The two cops spend over an hour of time and it’s quite likely overtime because that’s how police departments retain police officers by allowing them to make over $100,000 a year. Plus the policemen can also expect to earn as much or even more than his salary in pensions upon retirement. Taxpayers will also pay for the police officers health care which is much better than most of us can afford meaning that he will live a long healthy life at the expense of your tax contributions.

The homeless guy probably won’t be able to afford paying for the citation, it will probably go to warrant anyway. He will have to be arrested in the future and brought to justice for his despicable acts of homelessness and will be incarcerated. Anaheim has a camping ordinance that they enforced only 36 times in 2016. During a staff report to Anaheim City Council on January 14, 2017, Chief Quezada said this regarding the ordinance, “While the vast majority of our efforts remain focused on outreach, enforcement remains a sparingly-used tool in our overall approach.”

You would think that an ordinance that cost several million dollars in law enforcement activity to uphold the law would have a few more arrests to show for it, wouldn’t you?

There may be fewer homeless people in Anaheim camping in parks today, but now there is a heck of a lot more at the riverbed too. How can this be measured in success? The worst part is, in all of the data that I have ever seen, not once has this cycle of law enforcement and incarceration ever been proven to reduce visible homelessness other than by nudging it a little further down the road. Because the homeless have literally nowhere else to go they always end up coming back to the same place. Police see this as disobedience to the law. I see this as a vicious policy that only perpetuates the condition of being homeless.

At what point do we begin to ask how much of our tax money has been spent over the years on the same programs, policies and people and still have only two reasonable expectations? And what would the two reasonable expectations be, you ask? The police chief in your city will be back again next year asking for more money to fight homelessness and visible homelessness will become even more visible. You can be sure of both of those things.

A study was conducted earlier this year by the University of California Irvine, to determine the cost of homelessness in Orange County. It was the first ever of its kind here. Key findings of the study determined that it was less expensive for municipalities to place chronically homeless individuals in supportive housing than to allow them to remain on the streets where the cost is an average of $98,199 for each individual yearly. The study shows that the cost is reduced to an average of $26,158 once the individual is housed. That includes the cost of housing itself and any prescribed treatments for issues with mental health and/or substance abuse. You can verify the results of this study yourself.  

Orange County taxpayers deserve better than what they have been getting and persons’ experiencing homelessness here deserve a more urgent response to a very serious crisis. We all deserve a local government that is accountable for making wise and prudent decisions in our best interest. This has simply not been the case as I have demonstrated and you know this too from your own experience. We need to give taxpayers a break from throwing their money at failed policies dominated by public safety officials and police chiefs. Let taxpaying residents in every community of Orange County improve their parks and libraries and preserve the quality-of-life for themselves and their families for future generations. Let cops, be cops, not social workers with sidearms. And let homeless people become housed people.

About Tim Houchen