County Homeless Count Challenged

A homeless person walks near the Walk of Honor at the Santa Ana Civic Center. (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Thursday, July 28, 2011 | The number of homeless people in Orange County dropped 16.73 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to a report released Tuesday by the county Community Services.

Two local homeless advocates immediately questioned the figures, which show the county having a larger decrease of homeless people than any other county in Southern California.

"It's bullshit," said Dwight Smith, director of the Catholic Worker shelter in Santa Ana.

Paul Leon, executive director of the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, was not as blunt but also said it is hard to believe that the numbers of people living on the streets in Orange County dropped by that much.

Leon said any drop between 2009 and the present would almost surely be the result of millions in temporary federal stimulus dollars paid to help people with housing costs.

Stimulus funds "made a significant impact on keeping people off the street," said Leon. But he added that he's sure most providers of aid to the homeless are "still seeing the same amount of people."

The county's count, which took place on Jan. 22, totaled 6,939 homeless people in Orange County, down 1,394 from 2009.

The report released Tuesday was a summary of the findings that will be included in a future full report. County officials said the drop in the one-day count of the homeless was attributable to stimulus funds and other programs developed by federal officials and private groups in recent years to aid veterans, the mentally ill and those made homeless by the recession.

The county warned, however, that it is difficult to find and count the homeless. The total is a sound estimate, not a one-by-one count of every homeless person in the county.

The count is conducted nationally on a specific day every two years, and results are sent to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The goal is to estimate how many men, women and children are homeless on a given day to help plan programs and find them homes. The count has no direct effect on grants.

Orange County's preliminary report also contained a chart that appeared to show significant drops in the number of homeless people in other Southern California counties — particularly neighboring San Diego County, which the report said experienced a drop of 10.61 percent during the two-year period.

But the comparison to San Diego County is misleading, said the head of San Diego County's count of the homeless, because Orange County didn't include numbers for the city of San Diego. When the city is included, San Diego County homelessness increased over the two years.

Similarly, the number of homeless in Los Angeles County dropped 3 percent, but the numbers used for the chart made it appear the number of homeless was down 4.5 percent.

Ventura County, however, did experience a 14.6 percent drop in its homelessness between 2009 and 2011.

Julia Bidwell, deputy director of Orange County Community Services, conceded that county workers erred when they presented a comparison with San Diego and Los Angeles, using numbers that covered only a portion of those counties.

Regarding the Orange County numbers, Smith said county officials didn't make a strong effort to gather enough volunteers for the one-day count.

Orange County used 156 homeless persons, homeless service providers, and community volunteers to canvass 150 of the county's 577 census tracks.

San Diego County, which is slightly more populous than Orange County, had 3.5 times as many volunteers — 550 — for its count, according to Peter Callstrom, executive director of San Diego County's Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

"What they really mean is the interest volunteers had in counting homeless people has dropped 16.73 percent," said Smith.

"There are many challenges in any homeless enumeration, especially when implemented in a community as diverse and large as Orange County," the report warned. "For a variety of reasons, homeless persons generally do not want to be seen and can result in an undercount."

Whatever the county's final figures will be, the number will very likely increase after the nationwide count in two years, Leon said.

The county's own preliminary homelessness report also noted the importance of the stimulus funds, saying programs that have helped reduce homelessness included a "one-time infusion of $10.9 million in Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing (HPRR) funds to provide persons who are at risk of becoming homeless with temporary financial assistance …"

The full homeless count report is expected to be released in a few days, said Bidwell. Orange County is weeks behind Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and other areas in making its full report public.

"It's just a matter of staffing," said Bidwell. "There's no conspiracy. Hopefully it will be any day now."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Dwight Smith's affiliation. Smith runs a shelter in Santa Ana for Catholic Worker.

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