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New money fuels north county effort to blend police, community groups to tackle social issues

An effort that includes 13 Orange County cities, their police departments, and about 50 north county community groups will get $7.8 million from the state to continue a four-year experiment aimed at helping the homeless, preventing youth violence and assisting former convicts as they rejoin society.

Backers say the money approved in the 2021-22 state budget — plus $10 million more that might come from Washington — could help turn the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force into a template for how police and community organizations can work together to solve some non-criminal social issues.

The task force was launched in 2017, after state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, was approached by a group of police chiefs, city managers and community group leaders from six north Orange County cities — Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Fullerton, Placentia and Stanton — to create a regional program to handle what many saw as regional social problems. Newman, then in his first term in the state Senate, secured $20 million for the project and, within a couple months, four more cities — Cypress, La Habra, La Palma and Yorba Linda — joined up. (Since then, three other cities — Los Alamitos, Orange and Villa Park — have joined the task force.)



In 2018, Newman was removed from the state Senate in a recall election fueled by anger over his support for an increase in the state’s vehicle fuel taxes and registration fees. But in 2020, when Newman was re-elected to the state Senate, he and other county state legislators lobbied for money that would let the task force keep going beyond its initial four-year funding.

In addition to the state funding, Rep. Young Kim, R-Placentia, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein are hoping to land $10 million in federal money to finance the effort.

The task force, Newman said in a recent interview, “was my No. 1 priority coming back into office.”

Task force members and supporters say the effort is an example of how a group of cities can tackle social issues that don’t respect city boundaries. The collaborative is unique in Orange County and, with the latest funding, now includes all 13 cities in the county-designated north Orange County Service Planning Area for homelessness, the group’s foremost challenge.

The group effort has led to innovation, such as a phone app — Outreach Grid — that helps police and others quickly find open shelter beds and other services for homeless people. It also has strengthened ties between law enforcement and grassroots organizations, particularly groups helping young people.

Those successes, Newman said, kept him interested in the task force even when he was out of office. They also are why he believes the task force approach could work for other communities battling regional social problems.

“This can serve as a model to be replicated,” Newman said.

Cops and community groups

The task force budget has been $5 million a year, with 60% of that money helping community groups.

On a practical level, that money translated into expanded youth programs offered by the Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters, police explorers and other groups. It also boosted the nationally recognized tutoring service for low-income children, Rosie’s Garage in La Habra.

For the first time in California, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County and the Inland Empire introduced the mentoring program Bigs with Badges that has built relationships between children and police in other parts of the country. A smaller, less well-known program, Lot318 in Placentia’s La Jolla neighborhood, which began in 2008 as a homework club to combat growing youth gang activity, also has expanded. In 2018, using task force funds, Lot318 rented an apartment to create a neighborhood resource center that includes counseling.

Money also went to the homeless outreach services of City Net, which conducted a street census that tried to get a head count of homeless people staying in the 13 cities in the north Service Planning Area. That census, in turn, led to an effort to see how those people fare over the long term. Of about 1,800 people identified as unsheltered, the circumstances of 1,375 people — who became known as the Project 1375 group — have been tracked in the homeless services system. Their histories with homeless shelters and service providers are kept in a database that helps form the core of the Outreach Grid app, now being used by all law enforcement agencies in the task force.

Other groups funded by the task force include Orange County Conservation Corps and the Orange County Family Justice Center Foundation, whose work touches on all three task force target areas. Also, every city in the task force gets a share of the remaining 40% of state money — some $2 million a year in all — to spend on the three focus areas.

In addition to filing annual reports to tell state officials how the money is being spent, the task force also shares progress information with Cal State Fullerton’s Social Science Research Center.

Laura Gil-Trejo, the center’s director, has been working on a deeper evaluation of the effectiveness and results of the task force’s various efforts. She expects to start issuing a series of reports this month that will say how the task force is doing in the three key areas — helping the homeless, curbing youth violence and assisting former prisoners re-integrate in society, as well as the professional development of some of the community organizations.

Those evaluations, Gil-Trejo said, specifically look at how, or if, the community benefited from the tax dollars: “What did the region benefit from, or receive, as a result of the funds?”

Though the reports will offer details, generally speaking the task force has organized how homeless funding and other money flows through the region, reducing duplicate services in some areas and and bridging service gaps in others. It also has prevented big community organizations from essentially ‘big-footing’ smaller groups.

On the homelessness front, the Project 1375 group has shown progress, Gil-Trejo said. Three years after they were first tracked, 476 people were considered “street exits” as of April of this year, meaning they aren’t on local streets anymore. That group included 47 people who’ve found permanent housing and the rest who’ve been placed in at least a temporary living situation.

While it was “unrealistic” to expect the task force to end or significantly reduce regional homelessness in four years, the results so far impress Gil-Trejo: “This has been an incredible contribution.”

Long-term benefits

Buena Park Police Chief Corey Sianez, chairman of the task force board, said prevention efforts involving crime, violence and homelessness are, by their nature, difficult to measure. But he pointed to police in the region connecting with local programs and cooperating with community groups.

“It’s the stuff we’re doing on the backside that is having the biggest impact,” Sianez said.

“We like it. We weren’t doing any of this (prior to the creation of the task force) at the level we are doing now.”

Should the effort receive money from Washington, Sianez said he’d like to see some of it used to develop an interactive resource map that could help anybody needing to use a food pantry, a shelter bed or any related service. Word on federal funding won’t come until September or October.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Source: Orange County Register

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