By Tara Graham
“You’ve heard of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard)? Well, we’ve moved beyond that. When it comes to homelessness in Orange County, our philosophy is NOE: Not On this Earth!”
Paul Leon, a prominent Orange County homeless advocate, says a city councilman unhesitatingly uttered the statement above after a meeting one day. The councilman was on his way out of public office, Leon says, so he mustered up the nerve to openly speak his mind.
“And that’s the problem,” Leon adds. “We could end homelessness in two months if we really wanted to, but none of the 34 cities in this county really want to.”
Orange County, California — best known for its beaches, theme parks and gated communities — has a dark underbelly, and all the O.C.-inspired hit reality shows on television are overlooking the real drama: the tens of thousands of homeless living in motels, cars, parks and streets throughout the county because there are few other places to go. Some 21,000 homeless children are registered in O.C. schools. The county’s cost of living is one of the highest in the country and the availability of affordable housing is one of the lowest. Even its suburban homeowners are among the hardest hit by the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis.
What to do with so much drama?
Well, we could sweep all that dirt under the rose-tinted rug of reality television, down a few mimosas while overlooking the Newport Beach marina and just forget about it.
Or, we could sober up and get real for a moment:
REALITY: The County Board of Supervisors approved a ten-year plan to end homelessness earlier this year, meaning the O.C. is finally ready to acknowledge the poverty in its backyard and take serious action.
UNSEEN REALITY: The 150-page call to action will amount to nothing without city support and funding. The plan prudently calls for a year-round emergency overnight shelter, but “there’s not a city in the O.C. that’s going to let the county walk in and build any kind of permanent, large-scale shelter,” says Leon, who’s tried to secure land for similar projects. In the end, the cities always win, he says. And they always say no.
REALITY: According to the 10-year plan, local governments will be legally required to provide land for shelter space. A recent legislative addition to the California Housing Element Law now requires cities to set aside sites for the development of affordable housing and homeless services.
UNSEEN REALITY: Certain O.C. cities have already sidestepped this new requirement by designating unfit or otherwise uninhabitable land for homeless services, Leon reports. As long as local governments comply with the law and make a certain amount of land — any land — available to the needy, they’re in the clear, he says. And the homeless are left out to dry.
REALITY: The plan reports that there were 38 emergency and 27 transitional homeless shelter programs in Orange County in 2008.
UNSEEN REALITY: A majority of the shelters in Orange County have high thresholds for entry, meaning people need to qualify for services. “Almost all of these places take the cream,” Leon says. “One transitional shelter in Aliso Viejo requires people to have a car and a job to qualify for services. I mean, that’s not really serving the homeless.”
What meets the eye is not always the full reality. Too often there are incovenient details omitted from every picture. This project is an attempt to briefly unplug the artifice of reality television and bring some new faces and stories to the forefront of the O.C. landscape.
From the homeless who congregate in the Santa Ana Civic Center because rescue shelters are few and far between, to the immigrants working by day and sleeping on the cement by night, to the children forced to linger on street corners for hours to get fed – meet the unseen of the O.C.