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Organization in need of funding rushes to house hundreds of homeless before housing vouchers expire

A homeless liaison officer with the Newport Beach Police Department, speaks with homeless people at Balboa Pier.
Tony Yim, a homeless liaison officer with the Newport Beach Police Department, speaks with homeless people staying at the Balboa Pier on Feb. 6.
(Raul Roa)

An organization is rushing to house hundreds of homeless people in Orange County before its housing vouchers expire in the next few months.

But United to End Homelessness, a program of Orange County United Way, is in need of funding and suitable affordable housing units. The organization is rolling out a campaign this week, seeking $4 million in donations and is asking landlords and community members to provide referrals to potential housing opportunities.

Since United to End Homelessness started in 2018, it has moved 384 households. Now, it is tasked with moving hundreds more within a few months.

“This is a daunting task, but it is something that I know that our team is putting every effort into,” said Becks Heyhoe, executive director of United to End Homelessness. “To find these units, we are going to do everything that we possibly can because we understand that these are real people’s lives. These are people who are experiencing homelessness on our streets and in our shelters, and we are going to do everything that we possibly can to help them find their home.”

The 630 vouchers stem from a variety of contracts that the organization has with various groups. Most of the vouchers are emergency housing vouchers that were part of a record batch the county received from the federal government last year as part of a COVID-19 relief program. Billions of dollars were set aside for housing vouchers throughout the country, more than 1,000 of which were provided to Orange County.

The vouchers were split among four housing agencies in the county, the Orange County Housing Authority, which received 557, and three others run by the cities of Anaheim, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. United to End Homelessness received 475 of the vouchers from the Orange County Housing Authority. The expiration dates of the nonfederal vouchers vary, but every tenant who is approved for a federal emergency housing voucher has to have a lease set up by the end of June, Heyhoe said.

Orange County United Way created United to End Homelessness in 2018 as a partnership between the county’s leaders in business, philanthropy, government, faith-based and nonprofit groups. The organization has claimed it is dedicated to ending homelessness in the county by 2024. The group’s Welcome Home OC program partners with property owners to incentivize them to house the homeless.

There are a number of hurdles the organization will have to contend with over the next few months.

A homeless man carries a U.S. flag in Orange County.
A homeless man carries a U.S. flag in Orange County.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Currently, 264 households are done with the voucher process and are awaiting housing from the organization, but hundreds remain in the process of determining eligibility for a voucher, Heyhoe said.

There’s also the funding gap.

The organization needs to raise millions quickly to provide case management, security deposits, application fees and furniture for clients, and also to pay for staffing costs and daily holding fees so landlords don’t lose income while awaiting the housing process.

“With every contract, we have a funding gap,” Heyhoe said. “Unfortunately, none of the contracts are able for us to be fully funded to run the program ... So we’re always left with a gap of around $6,300 per household. So that is what we are seeking to fill with this funding.”

The “A Place to Call Home” campaign has already received $1 million from the Newport Beach-based Tarsadia Foundation.

“This substantial gift is a game changer for our initiative, and I feel encouraged that others will join them on helping to fund our work,” Heyhoe said. “Then the other part of this is the call to the community to help us find apartments. I’m sure most people are aware that this is one of the tightest rental markets in history. So it is very challenging to find units that are available. Then on top of that, when you layer in the fact that we need to find units that are affordable to people who have a rental assistance voucher, so that narrows the pool even further.”

Heyhoe said it has been very difficult locating open units. As an example, staff recently visited 242 apartment communities with more than 20,000 units. There were only 71 vacancies, eight of which were viable options for voucher holders.

“Which is why we’re asking the community to help us,” Heyhoe said. “If they see a sign up in their neighborhood or they’re out for a walk and they see a for rent sign, please snap a pic and text us ... we need all leads.”

The number Heyhoe referred to is (949) 669-4435. People can also provide referrals by visiting the organization’s website.

Heyhoe said they don’t really know what will happen if hundreds of vouchers expire. There may be a chance that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development extends the deadline, which could give much needed time to agencies across the country struggling with finding leases for voucher holders.

So far, only 11,264 emergency housing vouchers have been used of the 69,860 that were distributed across the country. That means about 16% of the vouchers have been leased out.

“We are not alone in the struggle to find units for these particular voucher holders,” Heyhoe said. “We’ll have to wait and see how H.U.D. decides to respond to what’s happening across the country.”

A homeless woman living in a parking lot in Orange County.
A homeless woman living in a parking lot in Orange County.
(Raul Roa)

Heyhoe, like many in the industry, has held that the county needs more permanent supportive housing to achieve the goal of ending homelessness. She’s supportive of the county’s plan to build 2,700 more units of permanent supportive housing in the next several years. Supportive housing is widely considered to be the key to ending chronic homelessness. A 2017 study by UC Irvine, Jamboree Housing and Orange County United Way found that it costs twice as much for someone to live on the street than to house them.

The county committed in 2018 to add 2,700 permanent supportive housing units by June 2025. So far, 395 permanent supportive housing units have been completed toward that goal. Another 559 are under construction and 350 other units are in the process of being funded. The public can track the county’s progress online. As of the last countywide Point-in-Time homeless count in 2019, there were 6,860 homeless individuals in the county.

Also furthering the urgency to rapidly house the homeless, 397 homeless people died in Orange County last year — more than any other year in its history.

“We haven’t had an opportunity like this before as a community,” Heyhoe said of the vouchers. “So if there are any property owners out there who have been on the fence about whether or not they want to get involved in this, now is the time.”

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