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Orange County has a new ‘homeless czar’ tasked with streamlining services and getting people sheltered

Susan Price

Susan Price, a veteran of Long Beach’s homeless services, has been tasked with addressing homelessness in Orange County.

(Scott Smeltzer / Weekend)

When Andrew Do won a seat on the Board of Supervisors last year, he realized that Orange County was poorly equipped to tackle an urgent problem — homelessness.

“The county suffers from what I would call ‘the silo effect,’” he said of the disjointed nature of county services such as housing, healthcare and food stamps. “There is no coordination at all with the resources that we have to help these individuals.”

This phrase, the subject of the similarly named book by Gillian Tett, refers to the disastrous results when an organization is fragmented and the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.

“A homeless person has to go to each office, each different department to get all of those areas lined up,” added Do. “Think about it: They don’t have any way to move around, and they can’t leave their worldly belongings unattended, so we’ve set up a system that makes it very difficult for them to get on top of what they need in their lives.”

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Last fall, Do set out to solve this problem by proposing a new countywide position: a social care coordinator — which many have dubbed the “homeless czar” — to offer policy expertise to the supervisors and streamline services for the estimated 15,000 county residents who experience homelessness at some point each year.

“There should be only one phone number so that the homeless individual or mental health patient — and not just them but their family and friends — only have to call one phone number, and then the coordinator will be the conduit to all county services,” he said.

Homeless man asleep in Laguna Beach

A homeless man sleeps on the curb at Mountain Road and South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.

(Don Leach / Weekend)

The Board of Supervisors approved his proposal, and on May 27, Susan Price, a veteran of Long Beach’s homeless services, started as Orange County’s first-ever social care coordinator at a salary of $158,000 a year.

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Price said it’s too early for her to articulate a specific vision for how she wants to address homelessness, which increased 5% between 2013 and 2015, according to the county’s biennial point-in-time homelessness survey.

“I’m looking at what’s available, how it’s working, what it’s engagement with the population is — really getting the information I would need to make an assessment,” she said. “I don’t have a firm assessment and strategic plan going forward. I’m developing that right now.”

One thing seems certain. Price doesn’t just want to coordinate services for the homeless. She wants to go further than that.

She said one of her priorities will be reducing the number of homeless veterans, who make up 12% of the county’s total adult homeless population.

According to Kelly Colopy, director of the Department of Health and Human Services in Long Beach, Price was instrumental in bringing the number of chronically homeless veterans in that city to “functional zero.”

Price brings a diversity of experience to her new position — 25 years on the front lines of homeless services, including the nonprofit, medical and governmental sectors. She has worked with the Casa Youth Shelter in Los Alamitos, Hoag Hospital’s emergency room and Long Beach’s Health and Human Services, overseeing the Continuum of Care, a body involving 12 agencies that provides emergency shelter, housing and supportive services to the homeless.

“Everything I have done has led me to this role,” said Price, who grew up in Laguna Hills but declined to say where she lives in Orange County today.

Price’s approach to homeless services follows a best-practices model known as rapid rehousing, which has come to replace the older standard of project-based transitional housing.

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In the latter, Price explained, several homeless families are placed in one fully staffed building for a limited amount of time, after which they must move out and find their own permanent living arrangements. The downsides of this approach, she said, are cost and efficacy. Not only is it expensive, but many families slip back into homelessness under this approach.

The national research has closed the door on the transitional model ... Rapid rehousing will serve a lot more people with a lot more success.
Susan Price

“When your exit time comes, you’re out, but that’s the period when you need the most help,” she said. “But they don’t get it, because the funding is for while they’re in the building, a very contrived environment.”

Rapid rehousing, on the other hand, puts such families immediately into their own permanent apartments and provides services on-site.

“You integrate them into the community and show them how to live successfully,” Price said. “You peel yourself out, and then they’re living happily ever after in that unit.”

Price converted three programs in Long Beach to the rapid rehousing model, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is also moving toward.

“The national research has closed the door on the transitional model,” Price said. “Our experience in Long Beach has validated that. Project-based transitional housing is very expensive and does not have better outcomes than a rapid rehousing project of the same time, serving the exact same population. Rapid rehousing will serve a lot more people with a lot more success.”

During her tenure in Long Beach, the homeless population there steadily declined. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of homeless people in the city’s downtown dropped 12%, according to a survey conducted by the nonprofit group Long Beach Connections.

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And between 2013 and 2015 — when Orange County’s homeless population rose 5% — there was an additional 18% drop in homelessness in Long Beach, including a 13% reduction in chronic homelessness and a 24% decline in the number of homeless children, according to figures provided by the city.

It is hard to pinpoint the reasons for the decline and how much of the rosy picture can be attributed to Price, who like all public figures has her detractors. Nonetheless, city officials credit Price with several areas of improvement.

For instance, Price grew the Homeless Services Division’s annual budget to $10 million and 22 staff members, according to Colopy.

One of Price’s biggest achievements during her time in Long Beach, she said, was the conversion of a former military base into the Multi-Service Center for the Homeless, which now has 1,300 beds and 12 nonprofits and public agencies on-site.

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Susan Price says she it still assessing the situation in Orange County but touts the new model of putting people directly into permanent homes, skipping the old transitional step. 

(Scott Smeltzer / Scott Smeltzer | Weekend)

Price said she works to bring in as many nontraditional partners in such projects as possible.

“From the visitor’s bureau to the Chamber of Commerce, business associations, neighborhood associations, childcare centers, YMCAs, libraries, workforce development and Goodwill,” she said. “Bringing all these integral parts into this system of care made everything we were doing more effective.

“This population has a myriad of issues, so you want to expand and diversify your toolbox, and that’s what I was doing — learning from the homeless people themselves, what it was that they needed, and whenever we had a barrier, we’d just leap over it.”

While some of these lessons will carry over to Orange County, Price also sees a host of new challenges, in particular limited housing stock and a dearth of studio and one-bedroom units, which are typically used in rehousing programs.

Citing Price’s approach and depth of experience, many local nonprofit leaders expressed satisfaction with the hire.

“Her general understanding of what the problem is and how you solve it is exactly in line with what we were seeing, and that revolves around national best practices,” said Paul Leon, founder and CEO of the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, which is dedicated to stamping out homelessness. Leon helped interview candidates for the position.

Margie Wakeham, executive director of Families Forward, which aims to help families achieve and maintain self-sufficiency, hopes that with Price, creating new emergency shelters, permanent supportive housing and affordable housing will be easier.

“If you were going to build a shelter of 10 bedrooms for families, that doesn’t sound all that difficult, but it’s huge,” she said. “It’s years of work and coordination. And I think having somebody that knows how to negotiate the politics and where those decisions are made will be invaluable.”

At the same time, there is some concern over how much independence Price will have, considering she will report to the Board of Supervisors.

Donna Gallup, CEO of American Family Housing, hopes Price will have the power to align fragmented systems: “The most important thing the supervisors and the county can do right now is to give Susan Price the authority to insist that all of the departments and providers and everybody that is offering social services and housing to come to the table and work together.”

Do said that he anticipates Price having a strong policymaking role in the county.

“I fully expect her to make policy recommendations,” he said. “Whether or not the board chooses to follow her recommendations, that’s within our power. But when the board agreed with me and created this position, implicit in that vote was a statement that we would like someone to help us in this endeavor. We don’t work in the field, we’re not experts. That’s what the vote indicates — the need for help, the desire to have an expert come in because it’s too be for us to take on.”

For Price, the key to the job will be collaboration with all the various actors throughout the county and a recognition that no one person can singlehandedly erase homelessness.

“Everybody plays a role and everybody has a place in helping us solve this issue,” she said. “It’s not going to be me alone. It’s going to be a lot of people working together.”

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Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil, caitlin.kandil@latimes.com

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