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Commentary: O.C. cannot tackle homelessness without consistent help from Washington

An Orange County Sheriff’s deputy and a social worker speak with a woman at the homeless encampment beside the Santa Ana River in Anaheim in February.
(Photo by Frederic J. Brown / AFP Getty Images)

Back in January, Orange County officials made national headlines when they dismantled a sprawling encampment on the banks of the Santa Ana River Trail, displacing 700 homeless people in the process.

Two lawsuits, seven months and a handful of court dates later, Orange County and its cities now have a deadline: finalize plans to house 1,550 people by Sept. 7 or face a possible court ruling or temporary injunction stopping the enforcement of anti-camping laws.

These marching orders were handed down by U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, who has been overseeing a lawsuit filed against Orange County and several cities on behalf of disabled homeless people who were forced out of the encampment in January.

There’s no doubt that Carter is right: It’s high time for Orange County and its cities to make meaningful progress on housing the 2,584 un-sheltered people countywide.


It’s not a coincidence that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has designated “Housing First” as the recommended approach to providing housing for the homeless. Housing provides a stable foundation for people struggling with chronic homelessness to address other issues, such as finding employment or dealing with substance abuse.

While Carter’s mandate for our county and cities to increase the number of beds available for our homeless men and women is laudable, more is needed in order for homelessness to become a relic of the past.

As a business leader who has been active over the years in charities and civic organizations leading the fight against homelessness, it has become apparent to me that finding long-term solutions for homelessness must be a team effort. No single government body or agency, nonprofit organization or corporate social responsibility program can go it alone when it comes to tackling this issue.

Homelessness is not just a local issue, but also a regional and national issue, and it requires broad coordination from all levels of government and private service providers. With that in mind, when we look at all of the critical partners needed in order to tackle homelessness, it’s abundantly clear that the one partner not pulling its weight is the federal government. In Orange County, this failure falls squarely on the shoulders of our elected representatives in Washington, D.C.


There are three key things our elected leaders should be doing to strengthen Orange County’s fight against homelessness. First is funding. One of the key roles the federal government plays in the battle against homelessness is to provide funding for local governments to allocate as needed. Section 8 housing vouchers, Community Development Block Grants, Emergency Solutions Grants and Continuum of Care funds are just some of the ways the federal government distributes funds to state and local housing agencies and community development departments to assist with housing.

Unfortunately, our leaders have taken to using HUD funding as a political bargaining chip, meaning that the levels of funding cities and counties can expect on a year-to-year basis has become unpredictable. The 2018-19 federal budget initially included major cuts to many of the federal housing programs. Thankfully, last-minute negotiations reinstated much of this funding, but playing games with the future of homeless men and women is unacceptable. We need our elected leaders to fight for and guarantee consistent and adequate funding so that our cities and counties are free to work on implementing solutions, as opposed to dealing with funding cuts.

Second, we need our elected leaders to ensure that HUD funding is being spent efficiently, and that means ensuring no one experiencing homelessness is left behind. An excellent step to take in the short-term would be to pass the the Homeless Children and Youth Act, which would allow communities to make up for any deficiencies in the counting of homeless youth and serve the homeless children, youth and families they identify as most in need of assistance.

Finally, our leaders in Washington need to appreciate that tackling homelessness isn’t just the compassionate thing to do: it’s the smart thing to do. A 2017 UC Irvine study, commissioned by Orange County United Way, showed that the county could save $42 million a year on law enforcement and healthcare, among other expenses, by moving people experiencing homelessness from the streets into housing.

More than ever, now is the time for our elected leaders in Washington to show compassion and moral leadership on the issue of homelessness.

Harley Rouda, a Democrat, is running for the House in the 48th Congressional District.