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Making the System Count

Making the System Count

2-1-1 Orange County believes new system to connect people in need with real-time resources could reduce homelessness by 80 percent in six years.

Living on the streets alone in 2010, 50-something Ellen became an unlikely agent of change in Orange County.

The San Clemente High School graduate once lived the typical Orange County dream. Then a diagnosis of cancer turned her life into a nightmare. She lost her job, her home, and her health insurance.

“When you don’t know where you can legally lay your head at night, it’s a frightening experience,” she said. “You don’t have a choice at the point, you have to survive.”

In seeking help, she met Karen Williams, who was volunteering at a local church. Williams was moved deeply by Ellen’s story, which exposed a gaping hole in Orange County’s safety net for homeless individuals.

“Our system of care is set up so most of the programs are for families, but the majority of chronically homeless are single people,” she explained.

Williams attempted to help Ellen by meeting with OC Partnership, now part of 2-1-1 Orange County, a hotline for residents needing referrals to emergency services. All she wanted to do was find Ellen a safe place to sleep, a shelter that would accept a single woman. She was frustrated to learn that no single database existed that could identify the number and type of shelter beds available on any given night.

So she decided to change that system.

Williams thought that creating such a system would be an opportunity for the county, and she found herself with a job as part of an initiative with the Commission to End Homelessness and their ten-year plan. Today, she is the president and CEO of 2-1-1 Orange County and sees the organization’s role as bridging the information gaps and working to increase the capacity of local service providers.

Among the most ambitious projects she is involved with is to make every resource for every homeless person count.

Expected to roll out this summer will be a game-changing resource for those serving our homeless population: an online coordinated in-take program to connect the more than 12,000 homeless men, women and children in Orange County with real-time resources, such as available bed count at local shelters.

This new process will enable 2-1-1 operators to match the needs of homeless individuals and families with available services at their time of greatest need. With better coordination through this system, service providers can place vulnerable residents in permanent supportive housing instead of emergency shelters, significantly reducing homelessness in Orange County over the long term.

“Our homeless neighbors are suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome because they don’t know if they’ll have the most basic of their needs met– a safe place to sleep at night,” Williams said. “With this new database and the coordinated efforts of nonprofits services providers, we can ensure that no one is homeless for more than 30 days, aiming to reduce homelessness in Orange County by 80 percent in just six years.”

If you’d like to help achieve this goal, 2-1-1OC needs 1,500 volunteers to participate on Jan. 24, 2015, at its Point-in-Time count. The results of this biannual tally of people without a home on a particular night could shape the county’s approach to ending homelessness. To get involved, visit 211oc.org.

To learn about 2-1-1OC and other organizations working to end homelessness in Orange County visit ocnonprofitcentral.org.

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Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at shoss@oc-cf.org.

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