Orange County seeks ‘homeless czar’

People living near  the Santa Ana River Trail move their belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works
People living near the Santa Ana River Trail move their belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works "sweep" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Authorities say their aim is to move people out of the way of coming storms. Many homeless individuals have to scramble to find shelter and storage for their personal items to avoid being arrested for camping and having their belongings and animals confiscated.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Facing a growing homeless population, Orange County is looking for a point person -- a “homeless czar” – to synchronize the dozens and dozens of programs among county departments targeted at homeless people.

A job posting went up Monday on the County of Orange website announcing a national job search for a “director of care coordinator.”

The homeless czar would report to the county’s chief operating officer and advise the Chief Executive Officer and Board of Supervisors on steps to end and prevent homelessness.

“State programs don’t talk to federal programs that don’t talk to law enforcement,” said Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who proposed the new position in September. “Everyone is trying to solve a common problem but only from the limited perspective that they deal with.”

Orange County’s homeless population grew by 5 percent over the last two years, according to this year’s homeless census. In neighboring Los Angeles County, homelessness jumped 12 percent.

The growing number of people sleeping in shelters, cars and on the street has prompted officials to seek a single administrator or homeless czar in charge of aligning housing, health and other resources for efficiency and in search of results –meaning a decline in homelessness.

“Hopefully it has that connotation that it’s going to make change,” said Donna Gallup, executive director of the Orange County non-profit American Family Housing.

Gallup is supportive of having a homeless czar but worries if that person doesn’t have the authority and political backing to make changes, the czar may simply become a moderator.

“The question is really whether or not this position will have the authority to bring together the highest levels of different, silo agencies and make true systemic change,” she said.

Others aren’t so hopeful.

“They have enough chiefs,” said Paul Leon, CEO of Illumination Foundation, a homeless, health and housing services group based in Irvine.

Leon said the public-private organization 2-1-1 OC already serves as a centering institution for homeless services. It’s a referral service that links residents to housing, heath and other resources.

There’s also a county Commission to End Homelessness whose mission it is to provide oversight and accountability for implementing Orange County’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness.

And then there’s the director of the O.C. Community Services Department, which oversees community and housing development, the housing authority, veterans, aging and homeless prevention services.

“I just feel this person is going to be another bureaucrat,” Leon said.

Supervisor Do said the future homeless czar would have the power to learn what other county departments do for the homeless and make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors about homeless shelters and service centers.

For Tim Houchen, there’s hope in the position. Houchen, who used to be homeless, now advocates for those on the streets

“We maybe could have avoided a lot of these problems that we had getting these shelters open,” said Houchen.

Earlier this month, the Board decided to purchase the $3.2 million bus depot in the Santa Ana Civic Center area where hundreds of homeless camp. It’s likely the homeless czar will weigh in on that project.

Orange County plans to close the application January 25.