HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Homeless populations in Orange County have surged over the years, and Huntington Beach’s efforts to get people off the streets have seen mixed results. The city council has green-lit grants for shelters and established a homelessness task force.
Now, it’s considering the addition of a new position that would take inventory of everything the city has done to help manage and serve homeless residents and travelers.
The recently published proposed budget includes money for a deputy director of homelessness.
“Homelessness is the No.1 resident concern,” said council member Dan Kalmick. “We’re using the wrong tool. We’re using a wrench when we should be using something else.”
Among the county’s most high-profile homeless camps were the roughly 1,500 people who lived in tents and makeshift shelters by the Angels' Stadium in Anaheim. County officials went about dispersing them in what became a highly public and controversial process.
The last county-wide count of the homeless population, done in 2019, puts it just under 7,000. It’s unclear if the pandemic boosted the number, slightly increased it, or had no effect at all.
Homeless encampments are a hot-button issue almost anywhere they occur. And many abutting cities share homeless populations with few sticking to one place for a lengthy period of time. Huntington Beach likely has a homeless population of about 300 people, but precise numbers are very difficult to come by.
“There aren’t 10,000 people. It’s a number we can get our arms around,” Kalmick said.
Cities around the county have invested in a multi-pronged approach to handling homelessness. They include homeless shelters, short-term housing, rent protection programs and even investment in social workers.
Each approach has its own complications in organization and execution.
Affordable housing can be costly and time-consuming. Huntington Beach, known for its oil wells, has to make sure each site is free of contamination. Then there are development costs.
Cities have also struggled to decide whether to house homeless people or not. More and more, cities have concluded homeless shelters are essential to the effective management of a city. So far, 10 OC cities have homeless shelters. For Huntington Beach, its recently completed Navigation Center, located at 17642 Beach Boulevard, is essential for the city to continue enforcing its ban on camping.
Other cities, like Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, have chosen to split the costs by partnering. With that comes additional administrative hoops to jump through.
There are also various grant programs and assistance sources from the federal, state and county governments — and, perhaps most importantly, law enforcement. Cities, including Irvine, have added social workers to their law enforcement staff. Most police departments are bogged down with disturbance calls regarding non-violent altercations. As a result, more police departments have added staff able to deescalate volatile situations. That way, police can be directed to higher priority calls.
Huntington Beach is considering its own program complete with paramedics who would help take the pressure off other emergency resources.
It all amounts to a nuanced approach to managing and servicing some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
These are some of the things a deputy director of homelessness could manage, but exactly what the position will entail is under review.
“The person we bring in will be able to identify what we have and if there are any redundancies,” Kalmick said.
Homeless numbers, and who counts as homeless, can be difficult to keep track of. Especially since the pandemic put large numbers of employees in the service and hospitality industries out of work. Both are major staples of the Huntington Beach economy.
Waymakers, a nonprofit with a location in Huntington Beach, was on the front lines, offering services and beds.
The shelter's program director, Nancy Galeana, said it’s going to take time for the area to recover.
“We’ve seen families who’ve waited years and years in order to get affordable housing,” she said.
Some families have doubled or tripled up in apartments. Other families have rented out a spare room to help with expenses. Some families may have a place to stay some nights, but not others. And the pandemic has complicated remote learning for some students without a guaranteed place at home to study.
Galeana said the shelter saw an increase in phone calls requesting services, but state pandemic protocols forced the shelter to reduce services instead of increasing them.
The new deputy director of homelessness aims to focus all the city's efforts on a solution.
Next, the city will decide whether to approve the position. The city council must decide by June 30 ahead of its next fiscal year beginning July 1.