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Orange County needs temporary and permanent housing solutions for the homeless

Somewhere in cars, on streets or in shelters across California, more than 20,000 homeless families — infants included — will sleep tonight. Among them will be unaccompanied homeless children and youth too.

Californians are used to trending, but here’s one category where our leadership shows our failings: The Golden State leads the United States with the largest number of unaccompanied homeless youth under 18 years of age.

Families with chronic patterns of homelessness are nothing short of an epidemic in California and a moral outrage that engulfs nearly every community. Orange County is no exception. About 1,650 school-age children in this county are housed in motels, vehicles or are unsheltered. Their families are caught up in never-ending cycles of poverty, often forced into homelessness through job loss, divorce, domestic abuse or medical crises.

Orange County’s housing market is one of the most expensive in the nation, creating a gap between rental costs and median family income. This economic trend is forcing the lowest-income families onto the streets and into shelters. As reported over a three-day outreach during Family Assessment Week in May, 131 homeless families were identified and connected with housing resources. This outcome is not the same for all families, however, their plight must be addressed through cooperative public-private partnerships.

One way we can encourage robust solutions to homelessness is through Senate Bill 2, which took effect Jan. 1, 2008, and applies to all cities and counties in California. Legislators designed SB 2 to cut through red tape and strengthen state law.

The bill requires every jurisdiction to identify potential zones where new emergency shelters can be located without discretionary review by the local government. SB 2 also increases protections for providers seeking to open a new emergency shelter, transitional housing or supportive housing development by limiting the instances in which local governments can deny such centers.

Without a doubt, a lot of bills only worsen the problems legislation was intended to solve. SB 2 isn’t one of those, especially here in Orange County.

The county’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness surfaced a real problem. Emergency homeless services in Orange County are inadequate when it comes to sheltering homeless families and are not designed to keep family members together safely.

This is where public-private partnerships can rise to help distressed families, youth and infants languishing in interim housing situations across Orange County. SB 2 gives cities and providers the runway to open new emergency shelters suitable for families and get them on the road to permanent housing through supportive services. And it’s not a pipe dream because it’s being done in the city of Orange.

After SB 2 was passed, HomeAid Orange County initiated a $5 million capital campaign to develop a direct response and embarked on a one-year quest to identify the city with the most workable ordinances and best opportunity to build an emergency shelter exclusively for families.

The result is the new 10,000-square-foot FamilyCare Center in Orange, where 10 to 15 families, all with at least one minor child, will sleep safely tonight at the 56-bed facility. They will be among the more than 500 residents annually who gain not only life-saving emergency shelter but also an entry point to other resources – a passageway to a family life outside of shelters – thanks to SB 2.

HomeAid’s Family CareCenter features amenities for families waiting to check in — including a reception area, snack bar and lockers a technology learning center, client intake area for referral services, outdoor patio, kitchen and dining areas, six full bathrooms with showers and laundry facilities, and more. This center will increase the year-round availability of low-threshold emergency shelters by focusing on rapidly rehousing families within 30 to 45 days through case management.

Every Orange County city has carved out SB 2 zones within their jurisdictions, yet the Family CareCenter is the first new project in Orange County developed under provisions of this nearly decade-old landmark bill. While we can celebrate this one victory, we can’t let it distract us from the reality that hundreds of other families and children who are homeless still are in need in other O.C. cities.

Of course, emergency shelters are only a short-term solution. Orange County needs permanent supportive housing for families.

But until that exists, we must open up to the idea of other public-private partnerships in other cities. We invite community leaders to reflect on the win that the Family CareCenter in Orange represents as a model to apply the lessons learned to their communities.

SCOTT LARSON is executive director of HomAid Orange County. JOHN MOORLACH is a California state senator from Costa Mesa.

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