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Moving the Needle on a County-Wide Problem: Insights from Orange County’s Homelessness Cost Study

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Intersector Project
February 21, 2017

Orange County’s housing market is one of the most expensive in the nation, with the general cost of living in the county 43 percent above the U.S. average. In 2016, it was estimated more than 15,000 men, women and children experienced at least one night of homelessness. Addressing this crisis has been “impeded by the unknown costs of care,” argues a new alliance of cross-sector partners in a recent opinion piece in the Orange County Register, “These costs are very elusive and are spread across a labyrinth of departments, organizations, services and sectors.” The partners have launched a study, to be released this spring, that aims to quantify the costs of homelessness to the Orange County community as a first step to advancing solutions. Implemented by the University of California, Irvine’s Department of Sociology, and commissioned and partially funded by Orange County United Way, the study involves a range of cross-sector stakeholders, including hospitals and emergency rooms, public safety departments, non-profit service providers, transportation agencies, cities and hundreds of individuals who have direct experience with homelessness.

We spoke with several key partners in the collaboration, who provided insights into their process that hold actionable lessons for practitioners of cross-sector collaboration in a variety of issues areas.

Youth Homeless Scared Lonely Lost BulliedParticularly for collaborations that ultimately seek to influence policymakers, the most effective efforts often have their genesis in the community itself, allowing the “grassroots,” rather than solely the “grasstops,” to set goals and priorities.

Involvement of grassroots stakeholders is a part of OC United Way’s work, and the development of the OC Homelessness Cost Study illustrates this. Shortly after the organization brought on a new CEO several years ago, it underwent an extensive community engagement and input process about what United Way’s focus should be going forward, Carla Vargas, Chief Operating Officer at OC United Way, told us. “We asked the question, what did people want to see change in the next ten years?” Housing was one of four areas community members considered. A multi-stakeholder Housing Committee assessed this input and helped develop a ten-year goal — to cut the percentage of homeless and housing insecure children in half. One of the strategies to advance that goal was to complete a cost study of homelessness in the county. Thus, the idea for the study itself was developed with input from the community.

Existing relationships among partners, as well as a previous history of cooperation, can create fertile ground for collaborative efforts to take root.

When the United Way approached cross-sector stakeholders to come aboard an advisory committee to steer the Homelessness Cost Study, these partners had existing relationships with one another and a history of coordinating informally and formally in various efforts related to homelessness. In our interviews, partners expressed an existing connectedness and understanding of mutual dependency based on those relationships, as well as a desire to improve where past efforts had fallen short.

Those existing relationships are partly due to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Continuum of Care (CoC) Program, which promotes community-wide commitment to the goal of ending homelessness by providing funding to a local CoC body that coordinates services of the multiple sectors and stakeholders working on homelessness. This process has “helped to create a platform for communities like Orange County to work together collaboratively,” said Karen Williams, President and Chief Executive Officer of 2-1-1 Orange County, in our interview.

Orange County is now seven years into a ten-year plan to end homelessness. Heather Stratman, Chief Executive Officer of the Association of California Cities – Orange County (ACC-OC) told us. While there has been some success through the plan — which seeks to bring in a multitude of stakeholders, including county agencies, non-profits and cities — collaboration among the stakeholders did not “solidify at a depth of level where everyone was working in the same direction,” she said. While the plan is strong, there were still some partners “doing their own thing and not collaborating.” Also, cities were not really at the table in the same way the county was or working at the same pace.

Involving cross-sector partners in the earliest stages of a collaboration increases the partnership’s resources and access.

After its community visioning process, United Way engaged a cross-sector advisory committee at the early stages of the study whose members brought resources that enabled the study to launch. Once it engaged University of California, Irvine to conduct the study, United Way brought in key stakeholders. “We knew we needed… the right government stakeholders, people that we would need to get data from, people who have worked professionally in the field, people who’d been involved in a prior cost study that had already been attempted but had some challenges with barriers of access to data,” Vargas said. These members were not merely consultative; they were involved in the design. “We spent a lot of time with the advisory committee up front before launching the study,” she explained.

To learn more about the OC Homelessness Cost Study, read the partners’ contribution to the Orange County Register.

Author: The Intersector Project is a non-profit organization that empowers practitioners in the business, government, and non-profit sectors to collaborate to solve problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone. We create accessible, credible, and practically valuable resources that are publicly available in full through our website. Visit us at Intersector.com.

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