Orange County Sheriff Reveals New Strategy to Tackle Homelessness 

March 24, 2021 Updated: March 25, 2021

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) is shifting the way it interacts with the homeless through dozens of liaison officers trained to work with the demographic.

“This is necessary because when we’re dealing with the homeless, we’ve realized that many of these people are experiencing mental illness, and also substance use disorder,” Sheriff Don Barnes said during a wide-ranging community briefing March 24.

“Transitioning away from homeless outreach specifically allows us to intervene with people before they’re homeless, or people who are experiencing crisis by bringing the appropriate key stakeholders and interventionists, social workers, and clinicians to deal with those issues in lieu of a law enforcement response.”

So far, 50 OCSD homeless liaison officers are transitioning to the new model through its newly launched Behavioral Health Bureau.

Barnes also discussed how the bureau could benefit the public at large.

“Law enforcement should not be the first face of government that those experiencing crisis should know,” Barnes said. “They should not be interacting for the first time with somebody wearing a uniform and a gun. We need to increase our services with the right intervention strategies, social service strategies that replace a law enforcement response.”

Inmate Update

Barnes also discussed the department’s ongoing lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which last year called on Barnes to release half Orange County’s inmates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the facilities.

Barnes refused to do so, and the case continues to play out in court.

“Since the outset of the pandemic, the ACLU has pursued litigation to release inmates entrusted to our care,” he said. “Orange County Superior Court issued an order in December of 2020 … that if implemented would result in the release of 1,000 inmates entrusted to my care.

“I’ve opposed all efforts to release these inmates, and I will continue to oppose those efforts to legal processes to help prevent the release of these inmates back in the community, because I believe they present a significant risk if released.”

To date, the county has had 2,314 total cases of COVID within its jails, with two inmates currently COVID-19 positive, Barnes said.

Public visiting inside jails, which has been forbidden for the past year, will reopen May 26.

“All that said, we are turning a corner in COVID-19 within the community and also within our jails, and as a nation,” Barnes said. “This is by design, and deliberate actions of those who were acting responsibly.”

Follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewVanVoorhis