County must take lead in giving shelter

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

This winter, there has been a flurry of media coverage of the homeless in Orange County, particularly the homeless population in the Santa Ana Civic Center area. We have heard about the county’s plans for a homeless shelter in Anaheim near the 91, its more nebulous plans for a homeless shelter in South County and its on-again, off-again plans to convert the empty Transportation Center in downtown Santa Ana into at least a temporary shelter.

I understand that there are challenges associated with each of these efforts. But here we are in February, and the county is still without an operating homeless shelter. And I suspect that the real reason is, as is often the case, political. As politicians scurry to determine who gets credit for what, who takes legitimate ownership of the issue, which campaign contributors and supporters can be lined up to profit off the effort and whom they can scapegoat if and when something goes wrong, the homeless are still without a shelter.

Don’t misunderstand me – the recent limited opening of the Transportation Center during our most-recent storm was a step in the right direction, but it was a small and isolated step. Despite months of media coverage and fervent proclamations, the county’s overall approach has been piecemeal and lacking cohesiveness. There is an increased presence of county workers serving the homeless in the Civic Center area, and it has been particularly heartening to see those public servants circulating among the homeless and the county’s mobile medical facility providing assessments, acute care and other services.

But the homeless population is not a single, homogeneous demographic – they are veterans and ex-convicts, young families and elders, people with physical challenges, mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependence, a wide range of other chronic illnesses and a host of distinctive conditions and situations.

Adequately serving such a diverse population is a complex challenge. And while providing shelter is a first step, it is simply a Band-Aid. What is really required, and has been for years, is a comprehensive regional strategy to combat homelessness, and there is no entity, public or private, better situated or possessing more resources to accomplish that than the county.

Within its Health Care Agency and Social Services Agency, the county possesses most of the human resources required to implement such a strategy. There are drug and alcohol program specialists, life-skills specialists, housing specialists, public health specialists, mental health counselors, psychiatrists and scores of other categories of outstanding public servants.

Orange County doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. Successful, comprehensive homeless strategy models exist across the country. The primary obstacle here has been, and remains, the desire and willingness of the county to actually commit to the development and implementation of such a strategy and focus on that objective without the distraction of individual political interests. It’s time for that to happen.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: February 7, 2016