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‘Do you think that homeless people choose to be homeless?’ Orange County United Way hopes to change public opinion on building supportive housing

Orange County United Way’s next step in an effort to deflate the rising numbers of homeless people in local communities by building supportive housing might be the toughest: getting the general public on board.
That’s the task of a newly formed leadership team of business, philanthropic, government and faith community representatives that United Way unveiled at a gathering Wednesday, Feb. 28, to kick off its “United to End Homelessness” initiative.
Table centerpieces at the breakfast gathering to launch Orange County United Way’s countywide initiative “United to End Homelessness” featured postcard-size photos of homeless people in Orange County. The back of the card at top right read in part, “In it for Sergio.” (Photo by Theresa Walker, Orange County Register/SCNG)Robert Morse, who was once homeless, signs a pledge to help end homelessness as part of Orange County United Way’s public awareness campaign “United to End Homelessness.” (Photo courtesy of David Kawashima)Artwork created by homeless people who use the check-in center in Costa Mesa to store their belongings was on display during the gathering to launch Orange County United Way’s countywide initiative “United to End Homelessness.” (Photo by Theresa Walker, Orange County Register/SCNG)David Swanson, a minister from Orange County, Fla., is involved in an effort there that led to the number of homeless people on the streets being cut in half. The advice of Swanson and three others leaders in the Florida undertaking is helping to guide Orange County United Way’s public awareness campaign “United to End Homelessness,” a push to create more supportive housing. Swanson spoke at a gathering to unveil the campaign. (Photo courtesy of David Kawashima)George Urch, a consultant for the Anaheim Ducks and the Honda Center in Anaheim, signs a pledge to help end homelessness that was on display at Orange County United Way’s launch of the countywide initiative “United to End Homelessness.” (Photo courtesy of David Kawashima)Robert Morse, who was once homeless, speaks to a crowd gathered for the unveiling of Orange County United Way’s public awareness campaign “United to End Homelessness.” Morse now manages the check-in center in Costa Mesa where homeless people can store their belongings. (Photo courtesy of David Kawashima)Show Caption of Expand
United Way’s collaborative leadership council will be the driving force behind a public awareness campaign aimed at solidifying support for dramatically increasing the number of housing units available to provide shelter for homeless people on the streets, along with ongoing wrap-around social services many of them need to remain stable.
The website outlines the components of the campaign and includes a pledge people can sign “to ensure that integrated and sustainable solutions are implemented.” There’s also a survey designed to assess the taker’s level of understanding about homelessness, both in general and specifically in Orange County, by asking questions like, “Do you think that homeless people choose to be homeless?”

City participation
The United Way campaign comes at a crucial time in Orange County’s efforts to deal with a homeless population estimated at close to 5,000 — half of them unsheltered.
Just this weekend, county officials wrapped up the dismantling of Orange County’s largest entrenched homeless encampment at the Santa Ana River Trail. After a civil rights lawsuit, the county placed nearly 700 people who had been living in tents and other makeshift dwellings into temporary quarters at local motels under a court-supervised agreement.
Now the county must figure out longer-term housing options.
And on Thursday morning, representatives from 23 of the county’s 34 cities planned to convene under the auspices of the Association of California Cities – Orange County to begin mapping out sites in their respective communities.  These sites could be locations for a variety of housing options: converting motels, rehabbing duplexes and other existing homes, or building new units.
“It’s not just the big cities under pressure but smaller cities are saying they want to be part of the discussion too,” said Heather Stratman, chief executive officer of ACC-OC. “Honestly, I’ve never seen that before.”
Stratman said the cities need to show willingness to include housing for the homeless within their borders in order to tap into a possible $100 million in private funding that she said 50 wealthy families in Orange County are committed to establishing at a cost of $2 million each – plus hundreds of millions more in state dollars and other funding for homeless and low-income people.
“We need to show up in Sacramento and say, hey, we have a countywide plan and significant dollars which we can leverage against state funding,” Stratman said.
The goal is to add 2,700 permanent supportive housing units in the next 36 months to five years, which would slightly more than double the number of existing units in Orange County for that purpose, Stratman said.
The Association of Cities group, which represents the interests of Orange County cities on regional public policy issues has been ramping up its countywide strategy over the past six months.  That included a Feb. 15 dinner event attended by representatives of 31 of the county’s 34 cities and presentation of data to show the county’s need for permanent supportive housing and its cost effectiveness, Stratman said.
‘Time to act’
Stratman, who is part of the United Way homelessness leadership council, described that organization’s awareness campaign as a crucial tandem effort needed to gain the support of taxpayers, mainly homeowners and merchants.
“This is where United Way has their role in this outreach,” she said, “educating people on why this is important, why it will pay off in the long run and why we should all get behind it.”
The foundation of the United to End Homelessness campaign is a 2017 study by UCI researchers that concluded Orange County taxpayers could save $42 million annually in health care, law enforcement and other expenses by adopting a housing-first model to get chronically homeless people off the streets. Orange County United Way and affordable housing developer Jamboree Housing Corp. paid for the study.
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The crowd at UCI also saw a video of Orange County’s highest-profile preacher, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, and wife Kay Warren endorsing the effort to house the homeless and provide the services they need, including increased mental health outreach. Many of the street homeless suffer from mental illness.
“Friends, this is the time to act,” said Warren, whose son killed himself in 2013 after a lifelong battle with depression.
But the man who got the loudest applause — a standing ovation — was someone who ended up on the streets for several years after losing his job as a taxi driver: Robert Morse, who is now housed and manages Costa Mesa’s check-in center where homeless people have daily access to stored belongings.
“Let me repeat,” Morse said, “lives will be changed by your commitment to action.”
Source: Oc Register

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