By Shawn Raymundo
A multi-city program to help transition homeless individuals off the streets throughout South Orange County launched in nearby cities recently and is expected to incorporate San Juan Capistrano next month.
Homeless services provider Mercy House is heading up the program, working with homeless liaison officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, as well as other groups, to get homeless individuals into the proper housing and mental health or substance-use treatment care.
The goal of the program is “to get people placed in housing,” as well as “contribute to an overall system of care that ends homelessness,” Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes said.
The program is being funded through a grant the county received under California’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP)—block grants that can be used to provide emergency services, rental assistance, capital improvements to shelters and youth-specific programming.
Mercy House was awarded $638,980 to run the homeless outreach program for two years in the county’s south service area, which incorporates the swath of cities between San Clemente and Irvine. The duration of the service contract is scheduled to end April 30, 2021.
Through the HEAP grant funding, Mercy House is currently operating in the cities of Dana Point, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo and San Clemente. Next month, the program is expected to include San Juan Capistrano, as well as Rancho Santa Margarita and Laguna Hills.
While working in those cities, Molly Nichelsen, the county’s public information manager, said Mercy House is targeting to get 10 homeless individuals transitioned from the streets every month.
“Through this funding, Mercy House has flexible funding to provide individuals with gap rental assistance, move-in deposits and other financial assistance as appropriate and necessary to individuals experiencing homelessness,” she wrote in an email.
While the name of the game is housing, Haynes explained that there’s much more nuance to the program.
“It’s not just housing; we want to connect to whatever services they need, we want to do assessments on them . . . so the right housing strategy is deployed,” Haynes said, adding, “The end is not just a happier person off the streets. The end is housing.”
In collaboration with the county and Family Solutions Collaborative, Mercy House first connects homeless individuals and families with a coordinated entry system in which they can be evaluated and assessed.
They later get assigned to a housing program that’s based on the person’s or the family’s assessment. Haynes said some individuals, such as those who are disabled or experience chronic homelessness, would be qualified for permanent supportive housing.
The availability of housing will also play a major role in Mercy House’s efforts, Haynes acknowledged.
“As we know in OC in particular, we are facing a housing crisis,” Haynes said. “We’re not going to end homelessness, we’re not going to get people off the streets until we solve the housing issue.”
The County of Orange declared a housing emergency based on a “substantial shortage of housing,” last year.
In the South County specifically, Haynes said there will also be challenges because there are not a lot of shelters or permanent supporting housing in the area.
San Juan Capistrano was one of several cities in South County recently named in a lawsuit by Orange County Catholic Worker, which said the cities have not done enough to provide shelters to the homeless.
“You’re going to see more success in the northern and central parts of the county, because, frankly, they’ve been more aggressive in getting permanent supportive housing,” he said.
Haynes said the funding to include San Juan and adjoining cities for the program should become available in July.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.