The Fight to Empower the Neglected

The Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition (OCPAC) is a nonprofit organization and a local poverty think tank dedicated to helping and empowering the homeless in Orange County. Through policy advocacy, the OCPAC promotes social and legal change. Its founder, attorney Mohammed Aly, is an advocate for those who live in poverty, and has devoted his life to fighting the criminalization of the homeless. The organization is especially important considering recent developments that indicate a plan to rescind all housing for the homeless in Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel, leaving the population destitute and without future plans for aid. InSight Magazine caught up with Aly to converse on what changes need to occur within the OC community, and to gather advice for individuals who want to help alleviate the problem.

Interviewed by Sydney Charles

Why homelessness? With such a variety of problems within today’s society, what made this subject so passionate for you? Have experiences from your childhood affected your perception on the subject?

First, it’s from personal experience. I come from a family of immigrants. My family grew up poor; I grew up in Anaheim, and we struggled. My personal experience within poverty has had the most influence. I’ve seen how far people can go when they are supported. It’s why I became an attorney — I feel like I have to give back. For that reason, I volunteered at a women’s shelter ran by a couple named Dwight and Leia Smith.

Along with the women’s shelter, they run a soup kitchen. At the shelter, they live upstairs while the women live below. At the soup kitchen, they serve food for the homeless at the Santa Ana Civic Center and have been serving there for many years. They’re constantly surrounded by people experiencing homelessness. Dwight became my mentor.

When I started volunteering there, he taught me about the criminalization of the homeless — they were getting citations for things like violating public space. I was outraged; I didn’t understand how they could make it a crime to be poor. I became a lawyer to challenge the criminalization of the homeless and the way our laws treat the poor.

What is your opinion of the attitudes of the orange county community towards the homeless?

I think that the community in Orange County is not opposed to the principle of helping people. I don’t think that you could say that the entire community hates homeless people, but I think that they definitely don’t want any shelters built anywhere near them. They have an attitude of, “not in my backyard,” and I think that’s generally the case. Communities have rallied against building shelters; they have put pressure on city councils to stop the approval of these shelters and to avoid spending money on them. I think that many in Orange County are generally conservative and do not believe in social welfare programs. They’re libertarian and they uphold the view that people should not rely on the government, the government cannot fix their problems, and that maybe churches should be caring for the poor, but definitely not taxpayers.

That’s one point of view. I think that many don’t realize that we end up spending more money having homelessness than we would if we had simply housed everyone. UCI’s School of Sociology conducted a study last year that showed it was cheaper to house people rather than to let them either get sick, get arrested by laws that make it illegal to be homeless, get prosecuted, get jailed, or get put through the criminal justice system, repeating this cycle of getting arrested and getting released. A lot of people end up getting hospitalized and sent to the emergency room; these are costs that are passed down to consumers and to taxpayers that are being paid regardless of whether we want to get involved. Then, if we did get involved, the study showed that we would spend millions of dollars housing people, but we would save millions of dollars. We should be saving up to close to 40 million dollars a year, 50 million dollars a year, if we put people in housing, rather than put them in jails or pay for their E.R visits when they become ill and have their medical conditions worsen by being on the streets.

I think there’s a moral opposition to providing for homeless people and to helping them because these people are seen as immoral, as failures, as people that cannot provide for themselves and choose not to. There’s this idea that their problems are caused on their own. That idea is, un- fortunately, very prevalent among the Orange County community. People fail to understand that it’s not a personal failing that makes them homeless, its economic conditions, that was proven by this UCI study as well. Homelessness is most directly correlated to not just property values, but housing costs and rental costs. When cost of living goes up, specifically when rents go up, then homelessness goes up. We have an affordable housing price system in California that we haven’t addressed and that’s what’s causing this homelessness problem.

What or who inspires you most?

Dwight is my mentor and has been for many years. He’s advocated for the homeless in San- ta Ana, and his method of advocacy is to urge policy makers to talk to the homeless and ask them what they want, what they think should happen. I think that style of advocacy resonates with me, and that’s what I try to accomplish through my advocacy, not to necessarily speak on behalf of the homeless people, but empower them. Homeless people, at the same time, need representation — including political and social advocacy. There are lawyers that are currently suing the county of Orange over the Riverbed evictions that took place earlier this year. Those lawyers are principled and effective, and personally, have been a source of inspiration for me.

What is the orange county poverty alleviation coalition and why did you create it? What events from your own personal life inspired you?

We are a nonprofit that collects donations and mobilizes the community and its resources to directly assist the poor; we earn the trust and legitimacy in that community. Once we’ve earned that trust, it lets you earn that legitimacy, then we can begin to advocate with them, side by side, and address issues that we’ve learned through our direct action. That platform that we built for policy advocacy is a way of affecting social change and holding political leaders accountable. So, direct action creates a platform: policy advocacy, which then allows us to raise awareness in society and allows for litigation to defend people’s rights. You have to have direct action to do policy advocacy, and when you do policy advocacy you can organize communities and effect social and legal change. When you start a non-profit, you can began accepting charitable contributions, and you can give donors a receipt that makes those contributions deductible on their taxes, so that is why most people start a 501 (c)(3) on their profit. I knew that collecting donations and providing that direct action for the poor would be important because you don’t want to approach a community and come empty-handed. To truly be in solidarity with that community, which is a necessary prerequisite for speaking on behalf of that community and organizing that community, that solidarity can only be built if you truly, meaningfully, care about that community’s needs. And so, a 501 (c)(3) is a vehicle where you can incentivize donations and collect money that empowers you to do that direct action which I think is necessary.

What do you see in your future, the future for your company and what goals you see yourself accomplishing?

I think that our mission and our fight in the future is going to revolve around the same is- sues that are involved in this lawsuit. And those issues are that people deserve shelter, and if they’re not being offered shelter then they cannot be arrested for sleeping outside. So, we will continue to challenge and advocate against laws that make it illegal to sleep outside when there are more homeless people than there are shelter beds in Orange County. And we will continue to push for and defend plans to create shelters in Orange County. Our goal is that shelters become a temporary solution, because people deserve to live in housing.