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

When I accepted the position as executive director for 2-1-1 Orange County in 2008, I never anticipated the rapid growth this agency would experience.

Our mission is simple: to help people find the help they need. We strive to be the first link to help people find resources that address emergency needs.

Yet while our mission is simple, many Orange County residents continue to struggle despite evidence the economy is showing some recovery.

During the 2011 calendar year, 36,866 residents of Orange County were not able to access necessary resources.

In many of these cases, while 2-1-1 OC was able to provide referrals for services, these referrals were not successful because all available resources had already been exhausted.

We found the most commonly unmet needs are motel vouchers, rental assistance and prescription medication.

While the majority of callers to 2-1-1 OC are low-‐ to moderate-‐income residents, many formerly stable, middle-class individuals and families that have been impacted by plummeting real estate prices, foreclosures and job losses are seeking support for the first time.

With the combination of this increasing demand and the fact that service providers have taken a hit in the economic crisis, resources are limited, and critical needs are going unmet.

Overwhelmed service providers offering this support suffer from a current lack of funds which strikes at the core of the problem.

Orange County’s population of “newly poor” once had well-paying jobs, homes, savings accounts and health care benefits. Upon losing employment, they find themselves cast into the system of “have-nots,” forced to reach out and ask for help — many for the very first time.

What does this mean for the residents of Orange County?

Despite slightly improved conditions, many families still wind up homeless, losing health insurance and going hungry.

Basic needs are the minimum resources necessary for long-term physical well-being, and more than 60% of calls that came into 2-1-1 OC are for basic needs, such as housing, food and transportation.

While the following resources have been requested, at this time no one in the county provides these services.

  • 24-hour intake shelter for the general public.
  • 24-hour or late-night services in general, such as drop-in centers and food services.
  • Free or low-cost psychiatric evaluation and psychiatric medication.
  • Pro bono or low-cost surgical and other medical procedural services.
  • Free computer provision.
  • Free transportation across county lines.
  • Free transportation for hospital visits.
  • Free transportation for people experiencing domestic violence and looking to go to a motel, friend or family member’s house or other shelter facility.
  • Adult incontinence products.

Adding to the complexity of providing services to meet demand is the need for increased collaboration and consolidation of redundant services.

How can service providers such as cities, counties, corporations and foundations work together to ensure nobody in Orange County goes to bed cold and hungry?

Understanding the needs and trends of our most vulnerable residents is the first step to determining priorities.

Orange County’s Ten Year Plan To End Homelessness is definitely working in the right direction. Become involved and make a difference.

Judy Bowden is a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member and executive director for 2-1-1 Orange County.

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