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California's Orange County Struggles To Combat Growing Homelessness, Opioid Crisis


Orange County, Calif., is one of the wealthiest areas in the U.S. It also has a growing homeless problem, and it's dealing with the opioid epidemic. A new pool of state money is targeting those issues, but Jesse Hardman reports it will probably take a bigger investment.


JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: The world's gotten pretty small for 27-year-old Nick Blinderman. His ups and downs happen within a few hundred feet of city hall and the county jail in the heart of Santa Ana.

NICK BLINDERMAN: For the first half of my sentence, yeah, I was across the street.

HARDMAN: Blinderman was just released from jail next to the tent encampment he calls home.

BLINDERMAN: It was weird. You know, you go upstairs, you know, an hour a week to go on the roof for your outside time. And I can see, like, you know, my home across the street.

HARDMAN: Blinderman and a few hundred other homeless residents live at the foot of Santa Ana City Hall. During the week, government employees walk by one of the area's most pressing issues to get to work.


HARDMAN: On Saturdays, Orange County's other creeping problem, heroin, also takes center stage here. Down an outdoor staircase from the homeless encampment, couples, families and a woman carting a bike trailer filled with more than 700 used heroin needles line up. They're getting new needles and discarding old ones.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).

HARDMAN: Nick Blinderman's in line, too, but he's contemplating how to get out of it.

BLINDERMAN: I'm just looking towards, like, my ultimate goal, which is, you know, getting back to a place where I can, on my own, pay for somewhere to live.

HARDMAN: To afford a one-bedroom apartment in Orange County, Blinderman would need to make around $27 an hour. With mental health and drug problems and a criminal record, he's more likely to stay on the street or return to jail. He's not alone. He saw many friends from the homeless encampment during his latest jail stint.

BLINDERMAN: It's just an extension of us, like, out here in there.

HARDMAN: Nick Blinderman's endless tour of the Santa Ana Civic Center might finally be disrupted by a new pool of state money. Orange County got a $6 million grant to expand drug treatment and affordable housing. That money comes from savings generated by Prop 47, a 3-year-old measure that drastically reduced the state's prison population. This latest phase of Prop 47 is meant to fund resources for formerly incarcerated residents.

JENNY HUDSON: To really help them navigate immediately from the jail to services.

HARDMAN: That's Jenny Hudson from the Orange County Health Care Agency, which won the Prop 47 grant. Her office is required to distribute the funds to local social service providers.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please move out of the riverbed.

HARDMAN: A helicopter hovers over the Santa Ana River, blasting the message, please move out of the riverbed, referring to a dry-as-a-bone stretch that leads from the Anaheim Angels baseball stadium to Disneyland. Eve Garrow is walking by the intended audience, hundreds of homeless residents.

EVE GARROW: They come from all over the county and set up tents here along the riverbed.

HARDMAN: As an ACLU researcher focusing on homelessness, Garrow's down at the riverbed a lot. She says police tend to push homeless people to isolated areas like this.

GARROW: It backfires because encampments then start to mushroom and grow, and they become visible.

HARDMAN: Garrow says these people should have gotten good news when Orange County passed its annual budget in June. It expanded by $50 million a pool of money earmarked for the county's biggest problems.

GARROW: Just in the growth of their discretionary budget, they could almost solve homelessness.

HARDMAN: But those funds mostly went to the sheriff's department. Meanwhile, new people are arriving and pitching tents by the riverbed every day. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in Orange County, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARCELS SONG, "OLDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jesse Hardman