Officers on front lines of homeless crisis gain insight at Homelessness Consortium


The most recent County of Orange Point-in-Time Count of homeless individuals in 2019 revealed an estimated 6,860 people without a place to live.

On any given day, 27,000 children are either homeless or unstably housed, according to The 25th Annual Report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County.

Tustin Police Officer Bonnie Breeze and Sgt. Sara Fetterling have compassion for members of the community who, through any number of circumstances, may find themselves living on the streets.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, left, addresses the panel during the Homelessness Consortium seminar at the Disneyland Hotel. To his right are Paul Leon, Pooja Bhalla, Geeta Grover, and Susan Parks.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

The officers know that members of law enforcement on the front lines shoulder much of the responsibility for keeping individuals accountable and keeping society safe, so they were anxious to attend a Homelessness Consortium held Dec. 6 at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

Homeless liaison officers from Garden Grove Police Department also attended, along with members of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office who deal with cases involving homelessness.

Hosted by the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates shelters and provides services to the homeless, and Orange County United Way, the educational day featured presentations from experts in the fields of public health and homelessness.

Panelists included Paul Leon, founder and CEO of the Illumination Foundation, and Richard Sanchez, director of the County of Orange Health Care Agency, as well as other service providers.

The panelists discussed the often complex situations that have led to a spike in homelessness in Southern California and highlighted some solutions that helped people get off the streets and on the path to productive lives.

Paul Leon, CEO of Illumination Foundation, welcomes everyone to the start of the Homelessness Consortium seminar.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

“I wanted to learn more about it,” said Fetterling. “We just come from our perspective, from the law enforcement side, so learning more about the entire problem, how to wrap your head around it, how to assist in solving it, is why I wanted to come today. The fact that there were some amazing speakers is what made us  go.”

Experts talked about a litany of at-risk factors for people who might become homeless and stressed the need for counseling and therapy, as well as a need more short- and long-term housing.

“If we only build buildings, we’ll never catch up,” said Clayton Chau, MD, of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness at the St. Joseph Hoag Health System.

Breeze said the balance between enforcing laws and helping homeless individuals access services presents challenging scenarios for the police.

“We have to do enforcement but we also have to be empathetic, so the whole way of policing has changed,” Breeze said. “It takes kind of a special person to have this job. I have a homeless person in my family. It’s given me the compassion to work with the homeless.”

One issue contributing to the problem is a lack of housing, Leon said, with more than 100 families in the county on the Illumination Foundation’s wait list for emergency housing.

People from all professions attend the Homelessness Consortium seminar at the Disneyland Hotel.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

The Bob Murphy House in Anaheim, named for Orange County philanthropist and aerospace industry executive Bob Murphy, is the newest shelter operated by the foundation.

The house will be able to accommodate up to seven families in need of emergency shelter at a time. Typical stays at the house will range from 30 days to a maximum of 75 days, Leon said.

The Murphy Family Foundation made a major gift that the Illumination Foundation is using to pay for programs and services associated with serving homeless families.

Other homes operated by the foundation include the 101-bed La Mesa Emergency Shelter in Anaheim, which serves homeless adults, and the nine-bedroom Theriault House Family Shelter in Stanton, the foundation’s first emergency family shelter, which serves homeless families with children up to 5 years old.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter was a surprise featured speaker at the consortium.

Heidi Marston, chief program officer of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, speaks during the Homelessness Consortium seminar. Behind her, from left, are Paul Leon, CEO of Illumination Foundation; Richard Sanchez, director, County of Orange Health Care Agency; and Susan Parks, President & CEO of Orange County United Way.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Carter, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has been an advocate for the homeless and the center of attention in the successful effort to remove about 1,400 homeless individuals who occupied a miles-long encampment along the Santa Ana Riverbed.

“We can’t fail, because the public has the right to safety and the public has the right to use these places,” Carter said. “Our public is not going to stand for homeless people taking over our parks, our beaches, and our libraries.

“But also, our public is not going to stand for the truly harmless person who has either mental disease or is just homeless because of circumstances of being incarcerated. And that is a tough balance. I think we can achieve that.”

Paul Leon, CEO of Illumination Foundation, left, participates in a panel discussion during the Homelessness Consortium seminar at the Disneyland Hotel.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge

Editor’s Note: Behind the Badge is owned by Cornerstone Communications, and the Illumination Foundation is a client of Cornerstone Communications.