Updated: Mar 1, 2018
What can the Orange County in Florida teach its West Coast counterpart about homelessness? Plenty, says one advocate
By: Theresa Walker
IRVINE — The way Andrae Bailey sees it, the Orange County he lives in, the one dominated by the city of Orlando and Walt Disney World, can provide some lessons to the Orange County that is home to Anaheim and Disneyland when it comes to reducing homelessness.
In addressing a roomful of business and civic leaders gathered Wednesday, Nov. 15, for an OC Forum talk on one of society’s thorniest issues, Bailey drove home the one approach that he said is the key to helping the most vulnerable people on the street: housing.
Bailey told the sold-out OC Forum audience of 200 people that homelessness had reached epidemic levels in Central Florida before a collaboration of influential leaders that he helped organize focused on placing the chronically homeless in apartments. Given what he has learned and observed about the local situation, Bailey said there should be urgency here too.
“When I’m reading about you in Orlando, that means things have reached a crisis level,” said Bailey, a former pastor and conservative Republican who turned his attention to cutting the Orlando metro area’s homeless street population in half over a four-year period by engaging top leaders in the community, changing the thinking on why people are homeless and how they got there, and enacting a housing-first model.
Before the numbers went down in Central Florida, the two Orange County regions had roughly the same homeless population. The most recent homeless census here, conducted in January, recorded nearly 4,800 homeless people — about half of them unsheltered. Bailey said the effort in Orlando moved 2,000 people off the streets and into housing.
Bailey served as head of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness but stepped down this past year to travel the country as an advocate of placing the chronically homeless who suffer from mental illness, physical disabilities and substance abuse issues into apartments and other housing, not shelters, and addressing their needs with wrap-around services.
Bailey, founder of the nonprofit Change Everything, launched the Lead Homelessness Initiative as a national movement to engage local leaders — from government, the private sector and the faith community — in ending homelessness. He was invited to discuss the issue at the OC Forum luncheon, sponsored by Orange County United Way.
NBC “Dateline” correspondent Keith Morrison, an Orange County resident, moderated the talk, asking questions of Bailey that alternately probed the challenges Bailey faced and explored the conflicting sentiments here about helping the homeless and how best to do it.
What about the people who say most homeless people are on the streets by their own choice, Morrison asked. And what about those opposed to providing an apartment on the taxpayers’ dime to someone who is doing drugs or isn’t working?
Learning the stories of the people in the streets can change perceptions of who deserves what, Bailey said.
“You can’t out-conservative me,” he said, evoking laughter from a gathering that included elected officials, representatives of major home developers, and other movers and shakers. “I had to admit there are people who can’t and never will pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
And there are millions of dollars to be saved by housing people instead of “managing” their issues through law enforcement, trips to emergency rooms, and other costly measures, Bailey argued.
A cornerstone of a public awareness campaign United Way plans to launch soon is a comprehensive analysis that the organization commissioned along with Jamboree Housing Corp. on the disproportionate financial cost in Orange County for public services that address the crisis of homeless people living on the street. The study was released earlier this year.
The tab from 2014-2015, as calculated by the UC Irvine researchers who did the analysis, came out to nearly $300 million. Local municipalities bore about half the burden, according to the study, titled “Homelessness in Orange County: The Costs to Our Community.” The study, conducted by UCI professors David Snow and Rachel Goldberg, said $42 million a year in services could be saved by housing chronically homeless people.
The study also presents a different view of who makes up the homeless population in Orange County, bucking popular stereotypes.
Sue Parks, president and chief executive officer of Orange County United Way, noted that the study found most are U.S. natives who have lived a number of years in Orange County, the majority of them older white males. A good percentage have mental health issues, suffered abuse as children or fled domestic violence, or ended up homeless because of a job loss or other financial upheaval. Some are struggling military veterans.
“These are our neighbors,” Parks said, an argument that upset homeowners and merchants might have trouble accepting.
But the unanswered question lingering over the room: In one of the priciest and affordable housing-challenged areas of the country, where will apartments or other accommodations be found to meet the challenge?
The issues raised at the OC Forum are a start, said Tim Houchen, an advocate for homeless people who spent several years on the streets of Santa Ana but now lives in supportive housing in Anaheim and serves on his city’s Housing and Community Development Committee.
“The whole idea that housing costs less, I’ve been saying that for a long time,” said Houchen. But, he added, “the discussion needs to be taken to a new level.”