Another Count of Homelessness but Progress Toward Remedy Still Slow

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

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

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The number of men and women in Orange County who curl up to sleep at night in places like downtown doorways, under trees in parks, in culverts and even in hideaways near freeway offramps is now thought to be around 4,300.

The good news, according to the 2013 countywide point-in-time census of the county’s homeless population, is that the estimate is lower than the 6,939 estimated in Orange County in 2011.

No one can be sure, however, because the totals are just estimates and because the county changed its method of counting this year. Comparisons to the past may not be accurate, according to the county’s most recent report.

“It is not possible to know how much of the change in results are due to the methodological and process changes and how much, if any, is due to a change in the population of homeless people,” the 2013 Orange County report states.

The report, which projected that 12,700 of the county’s 3 million residents are homeless at some point during a year, is required by federal law every two years as part of a nationwide effort to end homelessness. Most areas have set 2020 as their goal for ending local homelessness, but Orange County’s program started late and dropped 2020 from the name of its commission.

Fullerton is reducing its homeless population by issuing citations for “camping” to adults with nowhere to sleep who take shelter under tents. Anaheim had its own stiff “camping” ban on its Tuesday agenda directed at those who sleep or store belongings under tents, but the City Council voted to delay action on the issue.

The spotlight was turned on efforts to aid homeless men and women after the July 2011 beating and suffocation death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas by six Fullerton police officers. Three of the officers are awaiting trial on second degree or involuntary manslaughter charges.

Most homeless men in Orange County have access to no overnight emergency shelters until mid-December when the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana open, then close again at the end of March.

An effort by Supervisor Shawn Nelson to buy land for an emergency shelter in Fullerton collapsed when area residents complained that it was too close to a school and homes. Local efforts are under way to find a site in a commercial area.

In addition to the nation’s continuing poor economy, homelessness can result from untreated mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

Although millions of dollars are available from Proposition 63 for potential treatment of seriously mentally ill adults, Orange and other counties were unsure about the legality of spending the money for adults who didn’t believe they needed help and might not accept outpatient treatment without a court order.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law this month giving counties explicit permission to seek court orders for treatment when needed. Such treatment was made legal in 2004 under Laura’s Law, but counties needed to specifically opt into the program. Only Nevada County adopted it, and Los Angeles County conducted a pilot program.

In a news release Tuesday, Scott Larson, executive director of HomeAid Orange County, and Karen Williams, president and CEO of the OC Partnership, said having the 2013 homeless estimates will help with upcoming federal requirements that shift the care emphasis from shelters to a housing “crisis resolution system.”

That plan puts the focus on transitional programs intended to find permanent, stable housing for people who are homeless.

In addition, the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare is scheduled to take effect in January, meaning some single adults who currently don’t qualify for health care except expensive emergency room services, can be eligible for Medi-Cal.

Other programs, like the Illumination Foundation’s work with St. Joseph’s Hospital, are aimed at chronic emergency room patients who are or were homeless.

The Orange County 2013 homeless estimates, released in July, were based on a snapshot of the county’s homeless men and women taken by 750 volunteers on Jan. 26.

The national trend over the past several years is a decline in homelessness as programs intended to provide shelter increased. San Diego County, roughly the size of Orange County, counted 8,879 homeless in 2013, a 7.9 percent drop from two years earlier but more than twice as many as in Orange County.

Defying the national trend, Los Angeles County, four times bigger than Orange County, saw its homeless estimate increase to 58,423, a 16-percent rise from 2011.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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