Homeless in the OC

Homeless people live in tents on the Santa Ana River bike trail encampment next to Angel Stadium of Anaheim, in Anaheim on Saturday, April 1, 2017. (Raul Roa/Daily Pilot)

Orange County, wrestling with a homeless population of thousands of men, women and children, is moving toward increased cooperation among leaders in government and other organizations as well as new approaches to deal with those who live on the streets.

The issue is broader than the big tent camps along the Santa Ana River banks or on the grounds of the county Civic Center, said Paul Leon, founder of the nonprofit Illumination Foundation, which helps those who are homeless get off the streets. 

When he and his colleagues travel Orange County, Leon said, “the first thing [people] say is, ‘Wow there’s so many homeless people in Mission Viejo, in Newport Beach’” and other cities.

New shelters and proposals to use public property for temporary homeless tent centers are among steps being tried by county supervisors. Nonprofits and some cities also are coordinating programs. Santa Ana this week voted to create  permanent living spaces for homeless veterans. But the problem is big.

 Who is homeless in the OC?

More than 15,000 people are homeless in Orange County at some point during the year, according to the most recent official study, which counted 4,452 homeless people during one morning in January 2015.

The figures are from the county’s 2015 point-in-time count, which is prepared every two years and is considered the most accurate census of homeless people.

Another count was conducted this January, but the results won’t become public until later this month.

More than 3,000 of the homeless counted in the one-day sample were single men and women. But as of last year there were just 1,624 beds for them under the main programs of quickly finding housing and providing services like mental health and substance abuse treatment, according to estimates last year by the county’s homelessness czar, Susan Price.

Most Orange County shelter beds are provided to families, single mothers, or pregnant women, according to Price.

That leaves hundreds of homeless men and women without a realistic option for shelter or housing on any given night.

And as of April 16, county shelters that have served as many as 278 people per night will shut down until December.

The nighttime shelters, operated out of National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana, are open only during cold-weather months.

At the same time, a new, 24-hour county shelter and service center, known as the Kraemer shelter, is slated to open in Anaheim later this month with 100 beds and services like mental health care, drug treatment and job placement.

Stays at the Kraemer shelter are expected to average 30 days per person, with a goal of getting people into housing after that. But county supervisors haven’t announced plans to significantly increase the homeless housing supply.

Supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel didn’t return messages seeking comment on county homeless plans. Price declined to be interviewed, but through a spokeswoman provided a list of accomplishments and ongoing projects.

Among them was the recent addition of a county shelter in downtown Santa Ana, known as the Courtyard.

It opened in October, and provide a place for about 400 homeless people to sleep, along with showers, laundry, property storage, and connections to medical clinics, veterans’ benefits and legal aid. 

Meanwhile, Supervisor Shawn Nelson has called on county officials to try to find room to shelter every homeless person in Orange County, potentially on county properties.

With people living on the streets for long periods of time homeless deaths have risen sharply, from 53 in 2005 to over 200 last year, according to county coroner’s data. Much of the increase was attributed to drug and alcohol overdoses.

What is the answer?

Locally and nationally, the conversation around ending homelessness now focuses on providing permanent housing for chronically homeless people, including support services. The approach is known as permanent supportive housing.

Studies have found it helps people get off the streets, turn their lives around, and saves the public money.

In Orange County, new research from UC Irvine estimates an overall savings of $42 million per year if every chronically homeless person is provided permanent supportive housing.

The most expensive 10 percent of chronically homeless people cost the public more than $440,000 per year, largely through hospitalizations, the researchers found. But the most expensive 10 percent of homeless people in permanent supportive housing cost about $55,000 per year, they said.

An Illumination Foundation program saved millions of dollars by providing permanent supportive housing to chronically homeless people, the group says.

Their Chronic Care Plus program focused on 38 of the most-frequent and costly homeless users of hospital services, most of whom had a mental health condition and a substance abuse history.

Three years later, almost all of them – 36 people – remain in housing and see doctors to address their underlying health issues, according to Leon, the nonprofit group’s CEO. He previously said the $1.4 million spent on the program saved $14 million in costs at one hospital alone.

An expanded version of the program, called Street2Home, is expected to triple the number of people served, to 108.

City and county officials acknowledge housing is key to addressing homelessness, Leon said, with Tustin Mayor Allan Bernstein working to convene discussions with mayors of surrounding cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana.

Bernstein sent out an invitation to several mayors Tuesday seeking their first meeting about homelessness and other issues, according to an assistant to the mayor.

And city leaders are talking about affordable approaches to housing, like converting used shipping containers, such as the Potter’s Lane project in Midway City.  Other ideas include small, pre-fabricated homes and renovating unused apartment buildings.

This week, the Santa Ana City Council approved two new permanent supportive housing projects with a total of 100 apartments for homeless veterans and chronically homeless people.

If city and county officials team up on creating homeless housing, including on publicly-owned properties, they could largely solve homelessness, Leon said.

“We can see a little bit of flicker at the end of the tunnel, but there’s just a long way to go.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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  • David Zenger

    “Potter’s Lane project in Midway City.”

    Somehow used shipping containers ended up with an astronomical per square foot cost. But it sure looks good.

  • Clay Bock

    I think a huge issue is that the homeless have drug pushers who frequent the area to take any money they do manage to obtain and keeping a good percentage of them hopeless addicted.

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    The least the Supervisors can do for the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River Bike Trail is to provide dumpsters and portable restrooms. That would go a long way towards reducig the stench.

  • LFOldTimer

    Everyone should realize that just throwing money at the problem will solve NOTHING! As a matter of fact, just throwing money at the problem will only increase the number of homeless and cause the problem to grow.

    Nobody in power has the gonads to talk about the CAUSES of the problem and to deal with those. For instance:

    (1) Cost of living in OC.

    (2) A lack of growth in jobs that provide the workers with a living wage.

    (3) Offshoring of jobs.

    (4) Real estate valuation bubble.

    (5) Illegal immigration which steals jobs/resources from citizens and increases the cost for shelter & rents.

    (6) A pathetic mental health system that fails to provide adequate treatment for the severe mental cases who sleep in doorways and eat from Dipsy dumpsters.

    (7) The highly paid Commission to End Homelessness who are as worthless as gonads on a heifer.

    (8) Appointees like Rusty Kennedy of the Human Relations Council who are so busy chasing hate crimes and causing racial division that they have no time for the homeless population.

    Start there.

    If you just throw money at the problem word will get around and you will only attract more homeless from other counties and states. Then you will have more homeless on the street while paying the costs to house tens of thousands of homeless people at the taxpayer’s expense.

    The stewards of our treasure need to think above the level of the average 6th grader.

    • David Resendez

      You’re such a witty guy and quite a public policy wonk. Your talents are wasted. Only you understand how the world works. Help us. LOL.

      OC’s very own Mike Cernovich.

      • LFOldTimer

        You seem to be obsessed with me, son. Like the grade schooler with c*ke bottle eye glasses and two left feet is with the school athlete. You hate me while wishing you were more like me. But you just can’t let it go. lol.

        Your divergent and conflicted feelings must really be messing with your head. ha. Go take a cool bath with your rubber quack-quack. Chill.

    • ylDave

      So what’s the most effective way that a part-time volunteer can make a difference? I think we need some out of the box thinking. Get people in the homeless community trained up in leadership skills so that we can help them help themselves in breaking out of the cycle of poverty. Can’t avoid the cost of living in OC, need to figure out a way to help them relocate to areas where the cost of living is more affordable and there are job opportunities matching their skillsets. And for those that have significant mental health issues that they are unemployable, need to deal with that in a realistic way, knowing that emergency medical care is much more expensive than preventative medical care. But you need to engage with the community to sort out who is really employable and who is not.

      • LFOldTimer

        Dave, I see kids with severe cases of Downs Syndrome working at fast food restaurants. So I don’t buy the excuse that people with disabilities can’t work.

        Although schizophrenia can’t be cured there are some remarkable medications that allow those stricken by the disease to lead functional lives. But the person must have the will to improve his or her life. I have met some highly functional schizophrenics who work in white collar jobs. So to eliminate that population as hopeless causes is a big mistake.

        Some with mental disease may be “unemployable” but I believe the large majority can be productive citizens with the right treatment and some will power to improve their lives.

        If you treat a person like a ward of the state – you will produce a ward of the state.

        • ylDave

          Agreed – people with mental disabilities can work and productive members of society. But unlikely that they get to that point on their own, they need CBT and meds. But this really doesn’t answer my question about how a volunteer can make a difference…

          • LFOldTimer

            Volunteers can help by helping those in need help themselves.

            Just handing out free lunches fills a belly, but it doesn’t do anything to help that person provide for his own lunch the next day.


          • ylDave

            yes obviously…you are misunderstanding my question – what is there a volunteer *can* do that would be effective. You keep telling us what doesn’t work.

          • LFOldTimer

            Why don’t you tutor the homeless on the basics of life – like (1) How to pay their bills; (2) How to manage their financial lives; (3) How to acquire training needed to enter the work force; (4) How to find a job and work with them in the process? (5) How to look presentable to elicit respect from others (ie. personal hygiene); (6) How to read or do basic math (if they don’t have those skills); (7) How to form lasting and loving relationships with others; (8) How to keep records of important events in their lives; (9) How to use a computer to their best advantage; (10) How to clean up black marks on their criminal histories.

            There’s 10 for you, Dave. Is that enough or do you need more????

          • ylDave

            That’s good for a start. But one volunteer isn’t going to make much of a dent in the situation helping them out one on one. Need to figure out how to train individuals in the homeless community to help each other out in accomplishing those goals. Then you’re making a difference.

          • LFOldTimer

            You’re a hard man to please.

            You ask for suggestions. I give you 10 excellent ones. And then you claim you don’t have enough volunteers to do the job. lol.

            So why don’t you recruit more volunteers?

            Do you expect me to provide 10 more suggestion of how to do that??? lol.

            Enjoy the rest of your evening.

  • OCservant_Leader

    The problem with addressing the homeless issue in OC isn’t due to a lack of resources or ideas…it is the Board of Supervisors and their entrenched family in government.

    These are self-serving politicians who have abdicated their duty to the public.

    They are beyond tone-deaf. They see their role as a self-enrichment scheme — only. There is no “meeting of the minds” on human service issues.

    They may hire expensive spoke-holes to spew fake news…but the fact is – these are the wrong people…in the wrong jobs.

    BTW – good article VofOC. Keep up the pressure to force some action.

    • David Resendez

      You are such a witty guy, and quite a public policy wonk. Your talents are wasted. Only you understand how the world works. OC’s very own Mike Cernovich.