The numbers should be a wakeup call, but Orange County officials slumber on.

Homelessness in the county has jumped by 5 percent since 2013, according to the results of the county’s biannual “Point in Time Count” of people who are experiencing homelessness, previewed today by the Commission to End Homelessness.

Almost half of those counted are living without any shelter at all.

But the county has so far shirked responsibility for funding and developing the permanent supportive housing and affordable housing that is needed to end homelessness in what is one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation.  The county must dedicate more of its expanding budget revenue to solving the problem, instead of relying on inadequate and stagnant federal and state funds that don’t come close to providing the resources necessary to combat this rising tide of suffering and deprivation.

Orange County’s proposed budget devotes only 1-2 percent of its discretionary funding toward getting homeless people off the streets, and that is for the creation of year-round emergency shelter.  While that will provide temporary relief from the elements, emergency shelter will do nothing to address the county’s shortfall of permanent housing resources needed to end homelessness – permanent supportive housing and affordable housing. Permanent supportive housing – housing with wrap-around services, such as case management and mental health services – is especially important for homeless persons with mental illnesses or other disabilities.  Despite the fact that persons with mental illness are overrepresented among the general homeless population, permanent supportive housing is in critically short supply throughout Orange County.

County supervisors’ failure to take responsibility for homelessness has pushed the problem down to cities.

City officials have in turn responded to the growing numbers of homeless persons in their parks, alleys, underpasses, and sidewalks by passing and enforcing ordinances that criminalize innocent behaviors such as sitting, resting, sleeping, or having personal belongings in public places. In the absence of sufficient affordable housing to get people off the streets, enforcement of these ordinances violates peoples’ civil and human rights by ticketing them for behaviors they cannot avoid.  It also puts them at risk of being cited again and again.

These citations can result in warrants, the accumulation of fines, time spent evading police instead of connecting to service providers, and time in court and jail.  Citations can give people a criminal record, which perpetuates homelessness by preventing them from obtaining government benefits and housing.  They may spend the little income they have paying back fines instead of putting it toward living expenses that could help them get off the streets, such as a down payment on a car or a deposit on an apartment.

The rise in homelessness documented by the Point in Time Count is a clear indication that the county’s policy of inaction and neglect has not only failed to end homelessness but has actually made the problem worse.  It is time for the county to change course and take responsibility for the well-being of its most vulnerable residents by creating a dedicated source of funding for the development of permanent supportive housing and affordable housing needed to end our homelessness crisis.

Eve Garrow is homelessness policy analyst and advocate at the ACLU of Southern California.

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