Sheriff: Handcuffs Won’t Solve Orange County’s Homelessness Problem

By Drew Van Voorhis
Drew Van Voorhis
Drew Van Voorhis
Drew Van Voorhis is a California-based daily news reporter for The Epoch Times. He has been a journalist for four years, during which time he has broken several viral national news stories and has been interviewed for his work on both radio and internet shows.
July 18, 2021 Updated: July 18, 2021

IRVINE, Calif.—Transitional housing and holistic services are needed to help get Orange County’s homeless population off the streets, according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.

“I can tell you that we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of the homeless problem,” Barnes told The Epoch Times. “That’s not going to happen. The only way this works long term is to provide services.”

Building housing in a way that helps the down-and-out become successful is one of the best ways to break the cyclical nature of homelessness, as shelters and jails are short-term solutions, according to the sheriff.

Of course, he noted, shelter must be accompanied by the right blend of services.

“When we’ve talked about bringing services to this really high-risk population, it’s got to be timed and it has to be holistic,” the sheriff said. “And that means bringing people in to support them through either mental illness or substance disorder or education, or training for employment and getting them connected back in and put them back on their feet. It’s a hand up, it’s not a handout, and that’s the important part. It gets people back in a good place.”

Right now, police are faced with a revolving door of homeless petty criminals who are released back onto the streets, only to land back in jail for another offense.

“The problem I’m interested in [solving] is getting them to stop coming back to the jail, getting [them] out of the criminal justice system, and creating some other avenues for them to get treatment or services before they commit minor violations of law and are recycled through the criminal justice system,” Barnes said, noting that the Orange County Jail has effectively become the largest mental health hospital in the county.

The Right Approach

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has formed a behavioral health bureau composed of deputies trained in crisis prevention to help those struggling with mental health.

“The most difficult population we deal with are those experiencing mental illness,” Barnes said. “It takes a continued outreach effort to establish trust, to get them to first accept services. That’s the biggest hurdle that we face.”

Orange County has taken an advanced approach to addressing the issues of homelessness, although there’s still more to be done, he said.

Right now, it takes the department an average of 90 minutes and six deputies to respond to each mental health police call, meaning each call consumes a total of nine hours of combined deputy time and resources.

Causes and Solutions

One of the biggest causes of homelessness, according to the sheriff, was 2014’s Proposition 47, which reduced property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. While a felony conviction will land a criminal in state prison, a misdemeanor typically results in a county jail stint.

“So now if you have the drug-addicted and they’re caught with a narcotic, that used to be a felony. Today, you get a ticket,” Barnes said, noting that people normally don’t go to jail for misdemeanors. “So if you’re … caught with heroin today, we literally write you a ticket just like you made an illegal left turn and say, ‘Show up to court in 30 days,’ and they go right back out, and they keep using narcotics.”

Before the proposition was passed, drug users convicted of felonies could avoid state prison by entering drug rehabilitation programs. But since state prison is now off the table, Barnes said it’s a struggle to incentivize addicts to enter rehab programs.

Barnes said supportive housing is one of the best ways to solve the problems in the long term.

Although communities have been reluctant to embrace supportive housing developments in their neighborhoods, Barnes said there are benefits to doing so. One obvious perk is abolishing homelessness, he said.

“When people hear of housing for homeless, they most oftentimes think of low barrier shelters, emergency shelters, and those types of things, and there are those that exist,” Barnes said. “But that’s the first real option to get people immediately out of homelessness. The solution really is getting them into permanent supportive housing or some other living situations not in a tent or in a shelter. And that’s a progression.”

Drew Van Voorhis
Drew Van Voorhis
Drew Van Voorhis is a California-based daily news reporter for The Epoch Times. He has been a journalist for four years, during which time he has broken several viral national news stories and has been interviewed for his work on both radio and internet shows.