Back when Eve Garrow was growing up in San Clemente in the 1960s, Orange County was a sleepy swath of suburbia comfortably isolated from Los Angeles and all its scary urban problems. There were plenty of vagrants or runaway kids randomly begging for handouts or sleeping on the beach, but homelessness as a concept didn’t exist. Starting in the 1970s and over the next few decades, Orange County became one of the most affluent areas in the United States—ostentatiously so—and with it, the county experienced an explosion of homelessness driven by the simultaneous rise of income inequality and lack of affordable housing.
Garrow, a homelessness-policy analyst and advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, left Orange County years ago for studies at UCLA, where she earned both an MSW and PhD. But she has returned home with a mission: to force the county’s feckless conservative political leadership to fix a problem that it has allowed to spiral out of control.
Although the county recently opened an emergency homeless shelter at a former bus depot in Santa Ana, there are still several thousand people sleeping on the streets on any given night, many in makeshift encampments in the Santa Ana riverbed. “Orange County is more and more unequal, and the disparities are so striking,” Garrow says. “I think we need an awakening. We need more people to view homelessness as an issue of social justice and as a humanitarian crisis. Too many people see it as an issue of broken people, but it’s really a broken system.”
Part of that broken system is the fact that, although the county approved a 2010 plan to end homelessness by investing in affordable housing, the Board of Supervisors has so far refused to implement it, choosing instead to spend its budget on public safety. “In the absence of this policy failure—the failure to provide a humane solution to homelessness in the county—most of the cities and the county itself have taken a law-enforcement approach,” Garrow explains. “So the response has been to enforce ordinances that prohibit sleeping and camping in public, and that gets people into the criminal-justice system. People end up doing jail time, and they get pushed to more and more remote places in an effort to avoid law enforcement.”
Last year, Garrow wrote a report for the ACLU estimating that solving Orange County’s ongoing homelessness crisis would cost only $55 million in terms of affordable housing units. As Garrow argues, that may sound like a lot of cash, but it’s small change compared to the cost of dealing with the public safety and health hazards posed by the problem. “The longer you leave people on the street, the more acute their health and mental-health problems become,” she says. “They end up costing the county far more in terms of emergency-room care and psychiatric-inpatient treatement and jail.”
Sadly, there’s only so much the ACLU can do. “It would be great in this country if we had a legal right to housing, but we don’t,” says Garrow. “But one of the things that the ACLU does is try to prevent local governments from using policy tools that unlawfully violate people’s rights, such as citing people for sleeping in public when there is no place to go.” The organization recently filed a lawsuit in Laguna Beach based on that very theory. “The people living on the riverbed are the canary in a coal mine of a broken system, and as long as we continue to see the people as the problem, the longer it will take to build a movement to solve it.”