By Theresa Walker / Orange County Register
Housing for Health OC initiative has placed more than 40 people in apartments since March. The goal is to help 350 by end of year.
Five years ago, Laura Bliss applied for a Section 8 federal housing voucher, hoping to end a period of on again, off again homelessness by landing in a permanent new home.
At the time, Bliss lived in a home for women run by Family Ministries in San Clemente, sleeping in a bunk bed in a room she shared with other women. There were strict rules about visitors and sobriety and finding a job. Bliss loved it there, but could only stay in that transitional program for a year.
Fortunately, she made it onto the Orange County Housing Authority’s voucher list. Unfortunately, 7,499 people were in front of her.
It took until this summer for Bliss, 56 and disabled with nerve damage, to finally snag that Golden Ticket voucher that she waited on for so long.
But when she got the Section 8 voucher she was faced with two hurdles — finding an affordable apartment in the midst of a decades-long housing crunch, and convincing a landlord to accept her. As an added challenge, she had to do this against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bliss got lucky. The search dovetailed with the launch of Housing for Help OC, a new public-private initiative designed to help people just like her. What seemed like bad timing turned out to be a blessing.
Bliss is one of about 40 people in Orange County who, since March, have been helped by the new collaborative effort. Two months ago she moved into a $1,850-a-month apartment in Irvine. Because of the voucher, Bliss’ slice of the rent is $300, roughly one-third of the $1,084 she gets each month in her disability check.
Housing for Health OC began on a trial basis late last year. Four of the county’s leading homeless services providers — American Family Housing, Friendship Shelter, Jamboree Housing Corp., and Mercy House — formed a partnership with Orange County United Way, which serves as lead agency in the search for affordable housing. Together, they are focusing on helping individuals with a specific type of Section 8 housing voucher — one that’s issued to homeless single adults who are younger than 62 and physically disabled.
The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development began reissuing the current edition of these “Mainstream Housing Choice Vouchers” two years ago. So far, about 200 have been assigned to housing officials in Orange County, and are being put in the hands of qualified recipients through the Orange County Housing Authority and the Santa Ana Housing Authority.
“That’s a pretty solid pipeline of placement,” said Milo Peinemann, chief executive of Midway City-based American Family Housing.
That pipeline kicked into high gear with an infusion of $5.5 million in state funding awarded to the Orange County Health Care Agency and Cal Optima, the county’s health insurer for the poor. In February, the county approved a contract for the stepped-up housing services.
The money is earmarked to house 350 homeless people, using Section 8 vouchers, by year’s end. It also will cover move-in costs of up to $4,500 per individual, and pay for the “sustainability services” that help people transition from the streets or shelters and remain stable in their new rental homes.
Though Housing for Health OC is a complex web of public and private agencies and money, for Bliss it’s been a simple lifesaver.
When her one-year stay at Family Ministries ended, four years ago, Bliss resumed her housing odyssey. She got a job as a residential house manager for a drug rehabilitation program that lasted three years. After that she struggled through occasional stays in motel rooms, sleeping in utility vans owned by a company that employed her part-time, and returning to her ex-husband.
Bliss chokes up when talking about the teamwork that ended that cycle, and landed her in the Irvine apartment she shares with her dog, a pitbull named SoSo.
“If it wasn’t for all these people, I wouldn’t be here … I walk into my house and I’ve got peace and serenity.”