Homelessness and Poverty Keep Growing in Orange County, Studies Find

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Mariestelle Olague, who lives in the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim, sets up her tent again after cleaning it out on Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

More and more Orange County residents are struggling to afford rising housing costs and end up living on the streets, according to new reports from public agencies and nonprofits.

The two studies, both of which were overseen by the county government, confirmed a series of troubling trends.

There’s been a 54-percent increase in homeless people living on the streets in the past four years, according to data released last week from the county’s Point in Time count. From January 2013 to this January, the count of “unsheltered” homeless people grew from 1,678 to 2,584. Organizers of the count said the actual number of homeless people on the streets is almost certainly higher, because the count’s volunteers aren’t able to cover the whole county.

And the region’s shortage of homes, paired with stagnant employee wages, has fueled a housing crisis that is pushing families into poverty and homelessness, according to the 2017 Community Indicators Report.

(Recommended reading: Memorial service in homeless encampment remembers 18-year-old woman.)

If this isn’t addressed, through bringing earnings up or costs down, the result will be “a persistent and growing underclass,” the indicators report states.

“It’s a struggle for the workforce to [afford] housing,” said Susan Price, who oversees the county’s homeless services as its director of care coordination, in an interview.

Many people in the county have income and other financial benefits, she added, but “that is not a sustainable income for [our] housing market,” she added.

“Certainly there’s a sense in our communities that there’s an increase in homelessness.”

She emphasized the importance of collaboration by everyone, including leaders in county government, cities, business, advocates, and nonprofits.

“There’s room for everyone at the table, and that’s my message to the community, [which] is get involved and start working on the solutions,” said Price.

According to the indicators report, a household needs to earn $27.62 per hour to be able to rent a median-priced one-bedroom housing unit. But 68 percent of jobs in OC pay less than that, with the median hourly wage being $19.12, according to the report.

“To support the workforce, there must be enough housing at diverse price points to meet workers’ needs,” the report states.

“As Orange County competes with less costly communities that have adequate housing and job growth, it will become harder to retain or attract a skilled workforce. If housing and rental markets remain undersupplied, residents with lower-paying jobs will continue to be priced out of the market.”

“For those with low-paying service jobs, overcrowding and homelessness will continue to grow, perpetuating a persistent and growing underclass with diminished opportunity for personal advancement.”

January’s point in time census counted a total of 4,792 homeless people across Orange County, when including people who are in shelters and those who are not.

The vast majority of unsheltered homeless people – 89 percent – live in north and central Orange County, according to the figures, though 289 unsheltered homeless people were counted in South County.

The new annual estimate of the number of people who are homeless at some point each year in Orange County – which was over 15,000 in 2015 – hasn’t yet been released.

There appears to be a growing consensus about what’s needed to help chornically homeless people get off of the streets – while also saving taxpayer dollars.

“Certainly housing is the period at the end of the sentence on solving homelessness…It’s health and housing,” said Price, who added there also is a need for specialized housing like recuperative care, mental health crisis stabilization units, and drug detox centers.

A recent cost study by UC Irvine researchers found that housing with health and support services – known as permanent supportive housing – actually saves money for the public, mostly because of major reductions in emergency room visits that the public is currently paying for.

In Orange County, the public currently pays an average of $85,000 per year for each chronically homeless person living on the streets or in a shelter, according to UC Irvine sociology professor David Snow.

But when they’re in permanent supportive housing, that total cost to the public drops to an average of $51,000 per person – a reduction of over $30,000. And the outcomes are better for the homeless person, with significant drops in emergency hospitalizations, arrests, and tickets.

“There’s a decline in uses of services across the board, once people are housed,” Snow said during a presentation about his research last week.

The savings become even more dramatic when it comes to the most costly 10 percent of homeless people.

“In each case, you’re talking about an over $300,000 reduction on cost if these folks can be housed with some kind of wrap-around support,” Snow said.

Expansion of permanent supportive housing has support from local leaders.

Asked at the Irvine meeting if they supported a plan to create a housing trust fund to expand permanent supportive housing and identify the source of money to finance it, Max Gardner, the outgoing head of Orange County United Way, said “generally I think it’s an excellent idea.”

Added Karen Williams, president and CEO of 2-1-1 Orange County, “I think absolutely it’s one of the pieces of the puzzle.”

This type of housing already is happening in Orange County, albeit on a relatively small scale.

The Irvine-based Illumination Foundation has gone directly to a health foundation to fund a permanent supportive housing program, known as Street2Home, for 108 of the most-expensive homeless utilizers of hospitals.

A similar pilot program has housed about three dozen homeless people in recent years, while saving millions of dollars even when including the program’s costs, according to Paul Leon, president and CEO of the Illumination Foundation.

“Since January, we’ve housed about 160 people,” said Leon. “To us, it’s a race to try to get more available housing…We’re renovating places as fast as we can.”

Another program, Whole Person Care, which is overseen by the county and funded mainly through state and federal dollars, has a goal of housing 1,000 people in Orange County, he added.

“We’re really excited,” Leon said. “If cities would jump in, and the Board of Supervisors, with additional funding (and land), eventually we’re gonna cross over.”

None of the five county supervisors returned calls to discuss the issue.

“We are dedicated in our cooperation with city governments, local agencies, non-profits, and local communities to reduce the number of homeless individuals as well as [finding] feasible solutions to end homelessness and increase the quality of life for all residents,” said supervisors’ Chairwoman Michelle Steel in an email statement.

At least one county supervisor has shown support for expanded housing.

“If you don’t have a way to process people out [of homelessness], it’s just a band-aid approach,” Supervisor Andrew Do said in December at a meeting of the county’s commission to end homelessness. “Now we’re going to have to think about some kind of housing.”

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