By Chris Frost
Oxnard— As the city grapples with the homeless issue that sits on the precipice of becoming unmanageable, Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen has taken the lead and is trying to make a difference.
He sees the long-term plan to fix the homeless problem as almost baseball-like and plans to keep hitting singles, rather than going for a home run swing that is out of the city's grasp.
Nguyen plans to keep succeeding over 10 years with each year better than the last until Oxnard is a pilot city for solving the homeless problem.
He called the issue a crisis, and people need to remember the problem is not an Oxnard disease.
"We don't tolerate it, we don't like it, and we don't condone it," he said. "It's a challenge, and the crux of the problem is there is not enough housing in California. That's been decades in the making, and it will take quite some time to remedy."
Governor Gavin Newsome has been aggressively dealing with the issue, and Nguyen is looking at the budget to find some aid.
"My frustration continues to be that state funds are only being sent directly to the top 13 cities," he said. "All the remaining funds are funneled through the counties, and it's frustrating because it's adding more bureaucracy and it takes a lot longer for those funds to ultimately reach the cities."
Additionally, the funding is primarily for housing, he said, which takes more time, because the state has to promulgate rules on how to spend the money and which buckets and categories the funds go towards.
"Then it has to get to the county, and they have to figure it out with all it's member cities and figure who needs what amount of resources," Nguyen said. "Now you're talking a few years already."
Meanwhile, he pointed out that construction for housing hasn't started, but the homeless problem continues to grow.
"Then when it (funding for housing) reaches a city, it has to struggle with where do we put it," he said. "Then, what happens is your nimbyism kicks in. The challenge that we have is that every neighborhood wants the homeless people out of their neighborhood because right now they're outdoors. They're in the streets; they're in someone's backyard and side yard, they're at the park, at the river, and the channel. They're outdoors everywhere."
He called the problem ironic.
"You want the person out of the public space, but you don't want them in a private space near you," Nguyen said. "The same person that you complain about being in the park, you don't want them in an apartment building."
Nguyen doesn't feel like new zoning laws will help the problem because residential is residential.
"What we need to do is be fair about the distribution across the city," he said. "Cities have never been in the business of public health, and this has never been in our portfolio. Homelessness has always been on the county and the state, so this is a relatively new challenge in terms of the lives of cities in California."
The city does not have social workers or mental health workers and has never had the capacity or a "single dollar of funding" to get this done.
"All cities are massively playing catchup, and we're trying to get up to speed on how to address homelessness, and how to bring about the resources necessary for mental health issues," he said. "Money is a big gap. Very few cities have ever set aside money to deal with the homeless. It's frankly a line item we've never had."
The easiest path to place someone homeless in a residence is to use existing housing, he said, because it already exists.
"One of the fastest ways to find housing is in apartments, and that's why I am calling on the property owners and property managers of our business community to be open-minded and participate in the housing first program, and take on housing vouchers and a few formerly homeless tenants," he said. "We're struggling with Washington D.C. to create a whole new type of housing voucher specifically for the homeless."
One problem is there are only a few apartments available in the market that will be accessible to the housing first program, he said, so he's asked the business community to provide an interview for anyone who comes through the housing first program.
"You're going to give a job that's appropriate to someone's skills and abilities who is formerly homeless," Nguyen said. "If those two pieces don't come into play, it's hard for someone to re-establish stability in their lives."
In the end, Nguyen said the city needs to find places to create housing.
"I believe the only way to do it fairly is to distribute it across the city, so there's no one neighborhood that has to absorb the bulk of it," he said. "If you look at existing housing first projects, they tend to be the best properties on their block, and they are cared for, managed around the clock and in the end, it comes down to how well these programs are managed."
Looking forward, Nguyen said there are plenty of opportunities for places like Dignity Health to get involved and offer services.
"In the continuum of care, the county is doing a great job of managing those services," he said. "You can have all these services, but in the end, if you don't have any housing, it's hard for a person to re-stabilize their life."
He isn't worried about the system being overwhelmed by the homeless issue, and the system is doing the work right now in a dispersed fashion.
"You're trying to provide services for people who are homeless and outdoors, so that is a huge challenge," he said. "I believe the healthcare community, the HMO's, there is plenty of room for them to engage more. This has happened in New York and Chicago, where they understand the simple math of if they invested in housing for homeless people, it's a lot cheaper than treating people in the emergency department multiple times a month."
Nguyen feels like when you look at cities around the state that are inundated by the homeless problem, that Oxnard is on the same path.
"Right now, I believe for the next couple of years it's still manageable, and if we start the process, we can begin to bend the curve downward," he said.
The city doesn't have a specific goal yet, but he wonders what it will be like if they focus on 50 homeless people each year.
"That adds up fast, and it makes a huge difference in our public spaces and our neighborhoods if we can achieve that," he said. "We can look like those other cities in a few more years. The problem is only growing."
Getting people in homes and in the services they need will have a ripple effect, he said, and ultimately, the city will save money in the police department, fire department the public works department and code enforcement.
"During this transition phase, we have to spend money in both areas, so that's the challenge," he said. "The state has put aside over $1 billion to deal with housing and homelessness, and we have no access to it."
That point returned him to his initial frustration.
"I am trying to convince our representatives and other folks in Sacramento that they've got to release this money to the cities," he said. "We are dealing with the homeless day in and day out. We are the front line of the homeless crisis."
The city council used Measure O funds to fund fire station 2, $1 million, and Nguyen was trying to protect that money to use it for the homeless crisis.
"We are going to need it," he said. "It's expensive to address it, but it's much cheaper than not addressing it, and that will cost so much more down the line."
This story will continue in the July 12, edition of the Tri County Sentry.
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