Guest Commentary:

City of Orange resources tapped to battle homelessness

​By Mike Alveraz

As a life-long resident and city councilman of Orange, I am proud of our city’s reputation for having a small-town feel with small-town problems. 

In just the past two years, however, we’ve seen a dramatic jump in the homeless population in Orange County and in our city. Although the largest concentration of homeless is seen in the Santa Ana riverbed, it is a citywide concern. The homeless situation is reaching a critical stage for those who need assistance and the city’s resources. 

I know that people may say that not enough is being done, that their business is still being impacted, that their neighborhoods seem to be going downhill. I have seen that as well, and I understand your concerns. I often get asked, “What is the city doing about the homeless situation?”

The answer to that question is that the city is doing many things to try to balance and meet the needs of our residents, businesses, visitors and those in need. These efforts are seen mostly in the police, fire and community services departments.

The Orange Police Department efforts started several years ago, with the establishment of the Homeless Engagement Assessment Resource Team, known as HEART. HEART reaches out to the homeless to educate them about resources that are available to them. This includes state and county programs, Veterans Affairs, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and transitional shelters. 

HEART operates on a help-first principle to try to provide alternatives to homelessness; however, it also enforces the law. In 2016, OPD had contacts with hundreds of people who identified themselves as homeless. Approximately 15 percent of those contacts were individuals who were on probation or parole. Arrests were made for various criminal offenses, including rape, assault, weapons charges, drug offenses, DUI, theft and possession of stolen property. Many of these crimes were perpetrated by the homeless victimizing each other, as well as victimizing the residents of our city. The majority of these individuals were found to have prior criminal history; many were out of custody due to requirements of Proposition 47.

The drain this transient population has on our city resources is evidenced in OPD’s calls for service. In 2016, OPD received approximately 4,200 calls concerning the homeless. Responding to this large number of calls may cause a delay in OPD’s ability to respond to other calls in the city in a timely manner on any given day. The estimated cost to the taxpayer in 2016 for OPD’s responses to the homeless is $725,000.

The Orange Fire Department responded to nearly 800 homeless-related calls, again possibly effecting their response times to other calls. OFD has also reported being threatened by homeless people while responding to calls, and have often requested OPD assistance. In 2016, OFD estimates its cost to the taxpayer for activities involving the homeless was $200,000.

The community services department has reported an increased impact on our parks -- vandalism, graffiti, electric wire theft, broken doors and windows, bonfires and trees being cut down. These damages create a costly and negative impact on the city’s budget, image and the public’s enjoyment of the parks. The city’s efforts have been focused on preventing and discouraging this type of behavior by hiring a private security company to patrol some of our parks during non-operating hours. The private security company works with OPD, and has gained 90 percent compliance from people it encounters during off-hours. The cost of private security is $70,000; repairs due to vandalism are another $30,000, paid by the taxpayer in 2016.

The library has also seen an increase in disturbances and vandalism. Private security is being utilized in the library during business hours to encourage respectful behavior for the enjoyment of all patrons, at a cost to the taxpayer of $20,000 in 2016. 

My hope in sharing this information is that people will see that Orange city government is working on this issue, with the hope to finding a resolution that residents can accept, and the law will allow.

Mike Alvarez is an Orange city councilman and local businessman.