Shelter Director: Shortage of Beds to Blame for Homeless Serial Killings

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As authorities warn Orange County’s homeless people about a serial killer targeting their population, the head of a Santa Ana homeless shelter said a severe lack of shelter beds in the county is largely to blame for the deaths.

“These serial killings are taking place because these people have been abandoned by us and by the cities and by the county,” said Dwight Smith, who runs Isaiah House, the Orange County Catholic Workers’ shelter.

Three middle-aged homeless men were stabbed to death in northern Orange County during a 10-day period last month, according to police. The Orange County Register reported that each of the men was stabbed as he was sleeping alone.

The killings took place in Placentia, Anaheim and Yorba Linda. Police in those cities, the OC Sheriff’s Department and the FBI are investigating the attacks.

“If they were sleeping in a shelter, they wouldn’t be dead,” said Smith. “Orange County has a lot of explaining to do.”

Smith said that despite the efforts of nonprofit organizations like Mercy House and the Salvation Army, there are not nearly enough emergency shelter beds for the county’s homeless population.

He said that for eight months of the year, there are only 56 emergency shelter beds for the county’s 21,000 homeless people.

Even in the winter, Smith added, the estimated 400 beds available fall way short. “Now homeless people are clamoring for shelter. They need shelter,” he said.

Smith’s assertion of a severe shortage of emergency beds is confirmed by at least two major county reports.

The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, approved in early 2010, found that “the number of available emergency shelter beds is woefully inadequate compared to Orange County’s need.”

“The need for a more permanent and coordinated emergency shelter system in Orange County is immediate,” the report asserted.

Another county report, the 2006 Community Indicators, stated an estimated 13,000 people were turned away from Orange County shelter beds in 2005. There were an estimated 35,000 homeless people in the county that year.

In addition, a Weingart Institute study found that “when compared to peer regions, Orange County had the highest estimated rate of homelessness in California,” according to an Orange County grand jury.

Karen Roper, director of OC Community Services which oversees the county’s homelessness prevention efforts, did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday afternoon.

Ultimately, Smith says, the solution requires all of Orange County’s cities as well as the county government to step up and deal with homelessness in a comprehensive manner.

“You need an integrated approach to the problem of homelessness so the burden doesn’t fall on any one city,” Smith said.

— NICK GERDA

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