When Orange County’s first year-round homeless shelter opens in Anaheim next month, it will have an initial capacity of 100 beds.
But even at its full capacity of 200 beds, with 400 more beds available at a temporary emergency shelter in Santa Ana, the county can’t shelter the homeless in just Anaheim.
A census conducted by the nonprofit CityNet found 906 homeless adults in Orange County’s largest city, 797 of them unsheltered.
Matt Bates, vice president of CityNet, told the City Council Tuesday that shelter provides stability, allowing people to move past worrying about basic needs.
“Even an emergency shelter is a quantum leap ahead…just because they’re not worried about food, clothing and safety, so now they can work with case management on a long-term plan,” Bates said.
The county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness says that there are 66 shelters with 3,400 beds countywide. But estimates put the county’s homeless population at more than 15,000.
Many of the existing beds are reserved for families with children, women with children, single women or other especially vulnerable individuals.
Opening the Anaheim year-round shelter will be a major milestone for the county. Until the Santa Ana shelter opened last fall, the homeless had gone without access to a public shelter during hot summer months. National guard armories are open during winter nights to provide a dry place to sleep when it rains and escape the cold of the streets.
The CityNet count in Anaheim was conducted in November and December 2016.
More than 100 volunteers visited sites all over the city, from public parks to residential communities, to count and interview homeless individuals.
The results offer a glimpse into the lives of the hundreds of homeless people who call the streets of Anaheim home.
Of the 797 unsheltered adults, a disproportionate number are middle-aged white men. Thirty two percent of those living without shelter were in their 50s, 58 percent were white and 71 percent were men.
Nearly a third do not have a high school degree, and a tenth have been homeless for more than ten years.
More than a third – 37 percent – have a disability and/or mental illness, and 61 percent struggle with some type of substance abuse.
By contrast, most of the 109 homeless people living in shelters are women and people who have been homeless for less than two years.
With an unusually long and wet rainy season hitting California, public officials countywide have been under increased pressure from residents to approach homelessness with greater urgency.
In Anaheim, activists have attended every city council meeting for the past few months to call on council members to repeal or impose a moratorium on the city’s anti-camping law, which fines and confiscates the belongings of homeless people who camp in public spaces overnight, until the city and county are able to provide adequate shelter.
The CityNet report underscored the importance of shelter, finding a number of major differences between unsheltered and sheltered homeless individuals.
Homeless people in shelters were far more likely to have insurance (93 percent compared to 63 percent among unsheltered homeless) and use benefits like CalFresh (63 percent compared to 44 percent).
Sheltered individuals with some source of income equaled 78 percent compared to just 34 percent of homeless people without shelter.
Sheltered individuals also had higher levels of education, with 53 percent having some kind of vocational or college education.
Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, who are also asking the city to suspend its anti-camping ordinance, told the council Tuesday that the ordinance exacerbated their homeless clients’ instability by confiscating important belongings like identification, medication and cell phones.
For example, the attorneys cited a client who had identification and food stamp cards confiscated with other belongings, and did not have steady access to food until they were able to arrange for transportation to pick up their belongings, an opportunity that is only available once a week.
“There has never been a case where any of our clients retrieved all of their confiscated belongings,” said attorney David Mangikyan.
Many shelters focus exclusively on women with children and families or have income or sobriety requirements, making it especially difficult for single men and people who struggle with substance abuse to find shelter.
Brad Fieldhouse, president of CityNet, added that for the 61 percent of unsheltered people who admitted to some type of substance abuse, the psychological tolls of addiction can be an added barrier to accepting help.
“You lose hope when you do things that aren’t who you want to be, and it takes over your life and the next thing you know it’s one year, two years, three years,” said Fieldhouse.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.