Huntington Beach Takes New Collaborative Approach to Homelessness

April 17, 2021 Updated: April 17, 2021

Huntington Beach is expanding its strategy to help the homeless by creating new partnerships with local nonprofits and the police department’s Homeless Task Force.

“It’s a true partnership with everybody in the community. Everybody’s got a stake in the game,” Lt. David Dereszynski, executive officer of the Homeless Task Force, told The Epoch Times.

The California city’s collaborative approach really kicked off in December 2020, with the opening of the Navigation Center, a large tent-like facility with 174 beds that cost $2 million.

The partnerships revolve around the center, which is operated by the nonprofit Mercy House with an annual city contract of $3.5 million. Donations and volunteer work help offset some of the costs, said Dereszynski.

The center currently houses only 50 people, due to COVID-19 restrictions. It is intended as a low-barrier shelter for the homeless to enter up to 120 days each and connect with resources they need to address the root causes of their homelessness. It has connected five people so far with permanent supportive housing.

Hayley Yantorn, a case manager for the Navigation Center, told The Epoch Times that people who come to the shelter are “not being drug-tested, because it’s a low-barrier shelter.” But if someone needs a particular service—for example, to access substance abuse services—they would go off-site for medical treatments, or to one of the nonprofit partnerships.

Each week, representatives from different agencies come to the shelter to offer services to the residents, whether it’s helping them get their state ID documents or offering mental health counseling.

“It has to be a partnership with them [the homeless people]; they have to have skin in the game. It’s essential. We’re not just handing out free stuff when we do outreach. We’re giving out business cards and actual solutions to their problem,” Yantorn said.

Outreach workers are “not just trying to give them a warm blanket and a pillow to sleep on for the sidewalk,” she added; they’re trying to “take them off the street entirely.”

Some of the involved agencies include Homeless United, Wound Walk OC, Beach Cities Interfaith Services, Family Promise of Orange County, Project Self-Sufficiency, and the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council.

“Part of the Share Ourselves clinic that comes in, they have a mobile clinic, so they are helping to connect [residents] with CalOptima if they don’t have health insurance, [to] get them connected with a primary doctor,” said Yantorn.

Most of the homeless in the city are elderly, Dereszynski said. While enforcement has been a priority, removing encampments and personal belongings on public property, he said the city is emphasizing a compassionate approach.

An Old Scenario

Dereszynski described a typical situation for the many seniors on the streets: “They were married, and they had dual incomes or dual retirements, and then all of a sudden they can’t live on $800 a month, especially in Huntington Beach. Yet, they have their family, their friends, their pets, their comfort zone here.”

Yantorn said there’s a hidden demographic of seniors living in their cars “because they’re on fixed incomes.” Most receive Supplemental Security Income checks ranging from $800 to $900 a month, she said. “They’re from Huntington, they probably grew up here, raised their families here.”

She said “there’s lots of different types of homeless people,” but a typical scenario involves someone who has lost a spouse, their children have moved away, and they don’t want to be a burden.

“So they’re in their car because they can’t afford [an apartment]. They can’t even rent an apartment here or a room rental, for that matter. And most of them are set in their ways; they don’t really want to live with other people,” Yantorn said.

“Those are the ones that don’t even really want to go to a shelter, because they’re scared. They don’t really want to be around a lot of the other populations of homeless people.”

Orange County is considered among the top 10 least affordable metropolitan areas in the nation, according to a 2019 United Way report.

Another major homeless demographic in the city is white males aged 40 to 50, according to Yantorn, who cited job loss and lack of affordable housing as the main reasons.

Enforcement and Compassion

Many of the chronically homeless people congregate at the city’s parks. Police say they regularly receive complaints from neighbors about trash, personal items, or disturbances.

In February, the city cracked down on some of its enforcement codes and updated its personal property storage regulations. Transients now get a 24-hour notice to remove their items, before being charged with an infraction.

Dereszynski said police officers patrol known encampment zones daily. The officers attempt to develop relationships with the unsheltered population, another strategy to connect them with available resources and shepherd them into the Navigation Center.

“A lot of times the public says, ‘Hey we can’t enforce laws until the shelter’s open.’ That’s not entirely true,” Dereszynski said. “We have been enforcing those [ordinances against encampments] all along, but it does provide that extra tool with the Navigation Center being open.”

Officers are also taking “a compassionate approach” instead of “going out there strictly with the mindset of enforcement,” he said.

“And really, it’s a last-ditch effort, because we really know that sometimes it takes multiple contacts to kind of make them feel comfortable. So, we probably see a pretty consistent referral rate for officers.”

The referrals are about an officer giving the center’s case managers a homeless person’s information, so they can reach out regarding emergency housing options or other resources. Case managers do outreach work twice a week.

“Outreach contacts are not fruitful in the moment, but it’s planting the seeds,” said Yantorn. After a number of phone calls and emails, the contactees “usually come back … when they’re ready.”

Building rapport and developing relationships with the unsheltered are critical in gaining their trust, she said. Case workers at the Navigation Center are “trying to help these people rebuild all the things that they were missing prior to coming in.”

“The ultimate goal is to bridge the gaps, or whatever it is they’re lacking, to get them into housing,” said Yantorn.

Additional tools to address root causes of homelessness are in the pipeline. The city plan to create a mobile crisis response program, for example, including a civilian intervention team that will handle non-urgent calls.

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamiewritess