2nd District Supervisor Katrina Foley commits discretionary funds to get better picture of street population and spending on services. Big picture, Foley hopes to identify the most pressing needs of homeless people, and the gaps and inadequacies — along with successes — in providing services to them.
Where is the money going and can it be spent more effectively? What is working? Who are the homeless people on the streets, where did they come from and what’s keeping them from seeking shelter? Are they struggling with substance abuse?
Those are just some of the questions that recently-elected Orange County Second District Supervisor Katrina Foley hopes to answer. And she’ll try to get those answers in two ways — by conducting a census count and survey of the homeless people in her district, which includes Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach, and by auditing the organizations charged with helping them.
“This is a really major issue in my district, especially the southern part of the district,” said Foley, the former mayor of Costa Mesa who in March won a special election to replace Michelle Steel, who was elected to Congress last November.
Foley’s plan also is a unique way of trying to tackle the problem. Though some cities, including Anaheim, have conducted in-city surveys on homelessness, Foley is the first local supervisor to order a homelessness assessment strictly for the area they represent. Foley, one of two Democrats on the longtime conservative-leaning board, said the initiative will cost $72,000 — $20,000 for the survey and $52,000 for the audit — and will be paid by the discretionary funds that Foley, like each of the supervisors, can spend on behalf of her district.
To conduct the street census, Foley is hiring Would Walk OC, a nonprofit that helps people living outdoors. She’s also hiring an accounting firm, Moss Adams LLP, to perform the financial audit of local agencies that provide services for the homeless. Since December, homeless shelters have opened recently in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach has a partnership agreement to use 20 of the 70-beds at the Costa Mesa shelter.
The project is slated to start this month, and Foley said each leg should take about 10 weeks to complete. The results will be reviewed by a group of people who have worked on homelessness issues in Orange County. The panel includes Huntington Beach Councilwoman Natalie Moser, who last year campaigned on the issue and previously has participated in homeless outreach with Wound Walk OC volunteers.
The Second District homeless census, set to begin Wednesday, July 14, comes in the absence of the federally-mandated homeless Point in Time count, which was last conducted countywide in 2019. Orange County only does the homeless census every two years and it has been postponed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Foley pointed to another motivation. In February, a report from California’s state auditor found state and regional agencies have failed to adequately track how billions in taxpayer dollars earmarked for homelessness issues are being spent. The audit also criticized efforts to fix the problem as being too disjointed.
It’s unclear if possible revelations from the Second District survey and audit will affect countywide homeless policies. But once data is in, Foley plans to hold meetings with directors of the county’s Health Care and Social Services agencies and share the findings with the Board of Supervisors.
“Part of the goal is to see if our dollars are being spent effectively,” Foley said. “If we’re spending $100 million on services, and people are still living on the streets, it seems like we have a problem.”
Michael Sean Wright, a former emergency medical technician turned homeless advocate and documentary filmmaker, started Wound Walk OC about five years ago in Santa Ana with a simple mission — to bring basic medical care to homeless people on the streets. That mostly means cleaning and disinfecting cuts, insect bites and other surface wounds. But Wright also prods the people he treats to visit community health clinics and to connect to other available services. And, increasingly, he said, it also means talking with homeless people about drug and alcohol abuse. He encourages homeless addicts to get into detox and, after that, then medication-assisted treatment. He’ll even escort them to treatment himself, if a bed is open among the limited number of detox programs in Orange County.
During his visits to homeless hot spots at parks and other locations, Wright has been accompanied the past seven months or so by Ian Ashby, a clinical case manager with the Share Our Selves (SOS) Community Health Center in Costa Mesa. Earlier this year, Wright and Ashby were both on a Zoom call with Foley to discuss the homelessness-related issues in her district. The idea for the survey and audit grew from that conversation.
“She wasn’t quite aware of the extent of what was going on, is what we got from it,” Ashby said about the relationship between substance abuse and homelessness. “She said ‘Give us some numbers.’”
Ashby knows the damage personally. His father died from a drug overdose in 1997. And, until getting sober in 2008, Ashby, 40, also struggled with addiction and homelessness in the same streets he now canvasses with Wright.
“I wish, back in the day, somebody had paid more attention to me and asked me how I got there,” Ashby said.
Ashby’s organization, Share Our Selves, offers a variety of the health and social services often recommended by Wright. This past year, Wright said he’s felt an added sense of urgency to help homeless addicts as more people have died from the use of fentanyl, a cheap synthetic opioid that is more lethal than heroin. Drug overdoses played a key role in last year’s record number of homeless deaths in Orange County.
Some of the issues driving that trend might be highlighted in the Second District project.
“Our hope is that they take this information and go ‘Where are the gaps? What are we not addressing?’” Wright said.
Wright is particularly keen to learn about health care needs, physical and mental, that are particularly important for the homeless.
“This is pretty spectacular, that we are going to take the time to ask the questions.”
Wright expects about 10 volunteers armed with iPads will help survey about 400 homeless people in the Second District, a slice of the homeless population that he believes will provide a representative sampling. The 2019 Point in Time count recorded 289 unsheltered homeless people in Huntington Beach, the fourth highest among the county’s 34 cities, while Costa Mesa had 187 and Newport Beach 64.
Foley believes the county should be responsible for mental health care and homelessness outreach. Cities, she said, are overburdened and the county is the level of government designed to handle regional challenges. “It’s 100 percent the county’s responsibility,” Foley said. “It’s the reason we get the federal and state funding.”
While the survey and audit may help clarify issues specific to the Second District, Foley said solutions need to be set up throughout the county. “We can’t address the societal needs without the system in place.”
What will the Second District survey reveal?
Data in the homeless survey and census will include:
• Location encountered
• Last city of permanent housing
• Any addiction
• Mental health condition
• Last visit with primary care physician
• Last outreach from county or city services
• Last stay in a shelter facility; when and how long?
• Reason for leaving or declining services
• What could the county effectively provide?