Regionalizing the War on Homelessness

A California county is working to bring all stakeholders together to attack the problem far more effectively.
August 7, 2017
Homeless person sleeping near a playground.
A homeless woman rests under a tree near a playground in Orange County, Calif. (AP/Chris Carlson)
By Heather Stratman  |  Contributor
Chief executive officer of the Association of California Cities-Orange County

The erudite Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote that a "state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." In California at the state, local and regional level, elected officials along with community leaders are joining together in this spirit to tackle an issue of paramount importance to the Golden State: homelessness.

Homelessness is, of course, a serious economic, social, health and safety concern for the nation as a whole. On a single night in 2016, 549,928 people were experiencing homelessness in the United States, according to last year's Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. What makes California's homelessness problem especially acute is the degree to which it is concentrated in the state. In 2016, 44 percent of all of the country's unsheltered people were in California, and the state had the highest percentage of homeless individuals in unsheltered locations.

Different geographies and jurisdictions encounter and experience homelessness in different ways. Yet the conditions surrounding homelessness have common elements, including income and wealth, education, health, mental illness, addiction and family issues -- elements that do not respect jurisdictional borders. So in Orange County, California's third-largest county and the nation's sixth-largest, municipal, institutional and community leaders have gathered together under the direction of the Association of California Cities-Orange County (ACC-OC) to develop a regional approach and alliance to addressing and mitigating homelessness.

The regional initiative grew out of pressing need for greater collaboration among the county, its municipalities and nonprofit service providers. Specifically, a strategic and tactical action plan was needed to infuse energy and resources toward meeting the county's Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, which was crafted in 2010 in compliance with a $2 billion state funding initiative but has struggled to achieve its goals.

The Ten-Year Plan was an ambitious one. While its mission arc brought the homelessness issue to the forefront of policymaker's minds, the design failed to achieve buy-in from cities. A top-down model created a transactional relationship; specifically, the cities provided the county with land, and the county provided the funding. However, beyond that exchange, the cities did not have sufficient input to how plans were developed, what populations were served and how resources were allocated. The approach between the cities and the county was initially not a collaborative one, and did not recognize a key element of local governance: Cities have land-use authority.

As a beginning step to address this lack of synergy, the ACC-OC designed a municipal, county and regional task force that could provide an architecture for collecting intelligence, formulating direction and generating synergistic solutions. The task force offers multiple stakeholders the opportunity to come and work together: cities, the county, public-safety agencies, nonprofit providers, faith-based organizations, health-care providers and residents. Of the many endeavors the task force emphasized, three stand out:

The first priority was a better understanding of what homelessness looked like in Orange County, so a cost study was commissioned. This year, the study found, about 4,800 people have been homeless in Orange County at any given time. Over a recent 12-month period, approximately $299 million was spent on services for the homeless by municipalities, the county, and hospitals and other nongovernmental service providers. And while the average annual cost for services for a single homeless person is about $45,000, 10 percent of the chronically street homeless incur average annual costs of or exceeding about $440,000.

One of the study's most important findings was that costs are markedly lower among the homeless who are housed, and this is especially true for the chronically homeless. That supported the second key initiative: a dedicated "housing first" approach requiring that community leaders define funding sources, advocate for incentives for affordable-housing development, and work to solidify shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive-housing solutions.

The "housing first" emphasis led the ACC-OC and task force to the third initiative: advocating for state legislation to deliver new local-governance options specific to homelessness. The result was California Assembly Bill 346, which was signed into law this June by Gov. Jerry Brown. Among other provisions, it authorizes local agencies to use portions of their existing affordable-housing funds for homelessness services, transitional housing and emergency housing services. The law also allows contiguous cities to pool funds and construct housing or rehab old motels to support the goal of regionalizing the challenges and solutions to the homeless problem.

That, of course, squares well with Orange County's evolving regional and collaborative approach. The framework encourages cities to participate in the actual planning and development elements of homelessness solutions, and creates true ownership. True to Justice Brandeis' vision, stakeholders are experimenting as a policy laboratory to build a dynamic system of care infrastructure aimed at attaining what once seemed an unreachable goal: permanently ending homelessness.