A regional solution to address homelessness
By Heather Stratman
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) noted that California had the highest percentage of homeless individuals in unsheltered locations (66 percent) and accounted for 22 percent of the nation’s homeless populations.
To address the systemic problem of homelessness, the state launched a $2 billion No Place Like Home funding initiative, which incorporates a “housing first” approach, a best practice utilized nationally.
California locales as part of the state directive are required to create their own action blueprints to address the homelessness issue respective to their own county-wide challenges. In Orange County, Calif., the state’s third largest county and the nation’s sixth largest, an ambitious 10-year plan to end homelessness was instituted by elected officials as the vehicle for solving homelessness.
Despite the best of intentions however, the 10-year plan bogged down amidst a lack of buy-in from cities, and an approach between the cities and the county, which was initially not as collaborative as needed and did not recognize a key element of local governance: cities control their land use authority.
Recognizing that across the region, communities were experiencing economic, social, health and safety concerns as a result of homelessness, municipal, institutional and community leaders gathered under the stewardship of the Association of California Cities-Orange County (ACC-OC) to create a regional approach and alliance to addressing and mitigating homelessness.
As a first step, the ACC-OC designed a municipal, county and regional taskforce that could provide a mechanism for gathering information, crafting course and trajectory for action, optimizing resources and engendering support across stakeholder groups. The taskforce is unique in that its members now work synergistically and with purpose: cities, the county, public safety, non-profit providers, faith-based organizations, health care and hospitals, and residents.
Next was to actually quantify homelessness in the county, using a cost study of homelessness to find and assess not only the large-scale issues, but the pertinent details comprising them.
All of the data and conclusions afforded the taskforce the opportunity to craft a policy and legislative agenda towards the “housing first” methodology. This approach requires that leadership codify funding sources, advocate for incentives for affordable housing development and work to solidify shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing solutions in their communities.
One of the most revealing aspects of the taskforce’s work was the realization that despite geographical differences nationally, homelessness has fundamental causes: health, mental illness, financial, education, family issues and other factors. As such, models such as the ACC-OC led taskforce can serve as effective best practices for other regions and cities.
One of the biggest successes from the taskforce’s work was a legislative push to allow greater local governance solutions for cities and counties. Assembly Bill (AB) 346 was signed in 2017 by Governor Jerry Brown, and authorizes municipalities to use portions of their existing affordable housing funds for the development of homelessness services, transitional housing, or emergency housing services. Additionally, allowing contiguous cities to pool monies and construct or rehab old properties, helps to support the regionalization efforts of combatting homelessness, as opposed to one-off municipal solutions, which may address intra-city problems, but not inter-city concerns.
With the taskforce came coordination, and facilitating dialogue on best practices, model ordinances, state and federal advocacy efforts, social services and other critical efforts. The taskforce proved effective in marshalling all stakeholders who would be working on the issue, but working independently, and transforming that drive into action that pushed the agenda forward.
The taskforce is looking to expand the reach of AB 346 for greater action on contiguous city alignment. And from an economic perspective more effective workforce training for homeless individuals is of paramount importance to ensure they can become responsible economic actors.
Heather Stratman is the CEO of the Association of California Cities-Orange County, an organization dedicated to representing the interests of Orange County’s 34 cities.