United to End Homelessness is an initiative whose mission is to reduce homelessness in Orange County to functional zero by 2024. By collaborating with other organizations, government agencies, and public institutions like UC Irvine, United Way is dedicated to helping the community and its constituents. After speaking with Orange County United Way’s CEO Sue Parks, we were able to get more insight into what they’re all about.
Interviewed by Alexia Arechiga
What is the Orange County United Way “United to End Homelessness Initiative”?
Each United Way is focused on their own county, and here in Orange County we are focused on helping the community and letting the next generation be healthy and live self-sufficient lives. Working on that helps us keep track of homelessness in the communities. Initially, we were focused on housing insecured children, but the overall issue kept getting worse in Orange County, so we brought together service providers and realized that we needed to do more research to understand what was happening. We commissioned UCI researchers — a fabulous resource here in our backyard — to calculate the definitive cost of what homelessness costs here in Orange County. It’s a collaboration that’s dedicated to ending homelessness here in Orange County.
One of the key pillars of the “United to End Homelessness Initiative” is permanent supportive housing programs. What are the requirements for an individual to stay in said program?
We focus on the chronically homeless, so if one has been homeless for over a year or over different courses of time that could add up to three years, we try to focus on helping them find supportive housing. There are homeless people who have mental and physical disabilities, like veterans. We also have those who suffer from substance abuse and don’t have the resources necessary to house themselves, so we try to focus on them as well to get permanent supportive housing, especially if we see that they’ll never be able to live in a sufficient way otherwise.
There has also been mention of a Homelessness 101 class that you offer as a curriculum of the campaign. Can you tell me more about that?
One of the biggest things about Homelessness 101 is that we advocate for supportive housing programs because of their importance and success at getting people off the street. We want people to understand what it means for the community to support these housing programs. Aside from that, we educate people about the statistics of homelessness, how it can happen to anybody at any given time of life.
When people fall down on hard times, it’s easy to lose yourself and many homeless can tell you that. We also want to focus on homelessness in a positive light and take away the stereotypes that are common to homelessness. Homelessness 101 is also about prevention: the methods to avoid becoming homeless but to also find where to go and get help.
If someone is not able to attend a class like Homelessness 101, where can one get more information about homelessness in the county?
Just like how 4-1-1 gives you information on the local directory assistance, and 9-1-1 is for emergency situations, there’s a 2-1-1 whose sole purpose is to inform about health care services and human and social services programs. There, they’ll give you all the information you need about homelessness in the community and the services available to help.
Through my research, I’ve come across the mention of “Community Champions.” Who are the “Community Champions?” What does it take for one to become one?
You could be one. All it takes is for someone who cares to become involved and be educated on homelessness. We’d love for there to be people who come out and support permanent supportive housing so that we can help get everyone off the street in a humane and safe way. It’d help the whole community to help homelessness. People who want to help should volunteer. We have speaking programs for supportive housing that we’d love for people to speak up for, someone with a positive voice to lift up the whole community.
Are there any plans to collaborate with other cities, like Los Angeles’ Skid Row? What’s next for United to End Homelessness once the organization reduces homelessness rates in Orange County?
We work closely with Los Angeles’ United Way to share our stats and progress. LA’s United Way is very dedicated to solving the issue of homelessness. We meet every Monday and Tuesday to understand what’s happening in other communities. For example, United Way Fort Lauderdale in Florida is working hard across the country to solve the issue of homelessness there. It’s a nationwide effort. We hope to maintain the long-term mission by continuing our mission to keep the numbers at a low.
For more information on how to get involved in Orange County United Way efforts, visit www.unitedtoendhomelessness.org.