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Homeless Need More Than Just Lip Service

The Orange County Grand Jury has issued a stinging indictment charging that neither the public sector nor the private sector is keeping up with the fast-growing problem of homeless families in the county.

The charge is well-founded, especially when leveled against public officials. There are still far too few shelter beds and, despite a previous jury recommendation, government agencies are not coordinating their efforts.

It is not that people are unaware of the plight of the homeless. Recent surveys show that the visibility of the homeless and recognition of their circumstances have risen dramatically in the past few years.

In The Times Orange County Poll, seven out of every 10 people surveyed agreed that homelessness is a problem. And three out of four people in a national poll echoed the same charge made by the county grand jury: that local government has not shown enough concern for the homeless. Nearly half of the people polled said they would pay more taxes to help the homeless.

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But still the county’s homeless ranks keep growing. Estimates place the total at about 5,000, with possibly one-third of them families with children. Many of the homeless are also single women, some with children, and a good number of the people on the street have jobs but not enough income to scrape together the deposits needed to rent housing.

The county supervisors will have an opportunity to help ease that problem Tuesday when they consider a proposal made last week by Supervisor Roger R. Stanton. He suggested that the county and cities put some of the federal housing money they receive into a countywide pool. The money would be used to build transitional housing where homeless people could live until they saved enough money to rent a home.

That is a critically needed approach that should be pursued. No one local agency can adequately do the job alone. It makes sense to join forces and attack the problem that all face and should be trying to solve.

In search of that better coordination, the grand jury also recommended that the county board appoint a full-time coordinator for the homeless. The supervisors responded Tuesday by deciding to assign a county employee to work with public and private efforts dealing with the homeless. They will also explore the creation of a full-time position devoted to homeless issues.

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There is a glaring lack of leadership and coordination in developing both immediate and long-term resources that the right full-time coordinator could do much to overcome.

Another grand jury suggestion worth heeding urges the supervisors to work with the county League of Cities in helping private organizations “with zoning ordinances and permit procedures for shelters and soup kitchens.” Local government should go one step further and streamline those procedures, as well as making available vacant public buildings, parking lots and unused property for overnight housing.

But the difficulty in providing those facilities was seen in Costa Mesa last week when a soup kitchen that has been feeding about 150 hungry people each day was ordered closed by the City Council. Residents around the community center where the kitchen was located complained about the “undesirables” that the soup kitchen and the Share Our Selves service group at the center are attracting.

Homelessness is not a problem easily solved. But it is growing in far greater proportion than the community’s response to it. Orange County is one of the most affluent areas of the nation. It is time that it finally mobilized its ample resources and coordinated efforts to help the homeless--instead of just paying lip service to their plight, making value judgments on who they are and trying to close down projects that are truly trying to make a difference.

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