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Report Critical Of How Orange Co. Spends Homeless Dollars

Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orange Co. Homeless Committee Chair Rulon Munns, and consultant Barbara Poppe addressing the new report. / Photo by: Catherine Welch
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orange Co. Homeless Committee Chair Rulon Munns, and consultant Barbara Poppe addressing the new report. / Photo by: Catherine Welch

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There’s a new report critical of how Orange County is spending its money on homelessness. It found that of the $7.7 million Orange County spends on trying to end homelessness, nearly half of that funding may not be keeping people off the streets.

90.7’s Catherine Welch read the report and joined host Crystal Chavez to discuss the findings.

CRYSTAL: So Catherine, what did the report find?

CATHERINE: It found basically two things. Thing 1: a lot of money was spent on services that don’t lead to permanent housing. And Thing 2: the county failed to ask agencies that received funding to keep track of the data to gauge the efficacy of their programs.

CRYSTAL: So this isn’t about a misuse of taxpayer dollars.

CATHERINE: No. It sounds more like a change in the attack plan when it comes to trying to get every homeless person in Orange County into a permanent home.

So here’s a little history. Back in 2008, when the economy was imploding, Mayor Jacobs said Orange County focused a lot of money on crisis assistance, that’s helping people make sure their rent and utilities were paid. But she says now that the economy is rebounding, it’s time to look at whether that’s the best use of county dollars.

Also, she wants Orange County to examine how it spends money on what’s called transitional housing. This is short-term housing like youth shelters, what we think of as a homeless shelter, and places for domestic violence victims.

“Shelters used to be what you did. You just housed people in shelters and you hoped they’d sooner or later figure out how to get their feet on the ground,” said Jacobs. “And what we’ve learned is that the quicker you can get them into stable housing the quicker they can recover on their own.”

Jacobs said shelters aren’t going away, but if the community is working to eliminate homelessness then there needs to be a shift away from transitional housing and toward more permanent housing solutions.

CRYSTAL: Catherine what do you mean by more permanent housing solutions?

CATHERINE: The two models Mayor Jacobs highlighted are what’s called rapid rehousing and housing first. Rapid rehousing is exactly what it sounds like – getting a homeless person or family into a permanent house as quickly as possible.  Housing first is where you start by putting a homeless person into a home and then address their issues. So it used to be that someone had to, for example, be sober for a certain number of days or get some kind of job or stay out of jail and then qualify for a home. Now homeless experts want to stabilize people with a permanent roof over their heads and then address the issues.

CRYSTAL: The newsroom has been following the homeless issue in central Florida for some time. And what we hear again and again is that homelessness needs to be addressed holistically. If Mayor Jacobs wants to focus on permanent housing, does this mean Orange County will no longer fund things like health care or emergency sheltering for domestic violence victims?

CATHERINE: Orange County said there will always be a need for transitional shelters. And Mayor Jacobs understands the role things like mental health and substance abuse play in homelessness. Here she is saying what she wants now is for those who provide health care services to connect their homeless patients with people who can get them off the street.

“Looking at it more holistically, making sure as somebody arrives at one of our clinics that the resources are there to say, ‘what else is going on in your world and how do we connect you to the resources and the services to get you on your feet,’” said Jacobs. “As opposed to, ‘let’s deal with that ear infection that your two-year-old has.’”

CRYSTAL: Now Catherine, you said the report found that the county failed to get performance data from a number of agencies receiving county dollars – is that bad?

CATHERINE: The consultant who did the report, Barbara Poppe, said it’s common that county dollars can’t be tracked with data. And she also said it was no surprise that shelters and transitional housing programs are under-performing when it comes to permanent housing solutions.

“There were no surprises here. I think there’s just great opportunity because you’ve got a strong investment in local revenue that can be very flexibly deployed to achieve the greatest result,” said Poppe.

CATHERINE: And when I asked Mayor Jacobs whether the county’s efforts should be completely overhauled or just nipped and tweaked, she said “somewhere in between.”