Homelessness is growing to record levels in Orange County and elsewhere in the country, with more and more county residents struggling to afford rising housing costs and ending up on the streets.
As the problem continues – with all signs pointing to it worsening in 2018 and beyond – here’s a rundown of what happened this year on the homelessness front:
Homelessness Continues to Grow, and Voters Ranked it the Top Issue They Care About
Anyone who’s driven along the 57 freeway near Angel Stadium has seen the growth in homelessness in recent years, the long stretch of improvised shelters erected along the Santa Ana riverbank by homeless people. And the official homeless count, overseen by the county government every two years, confirmed it.
That census, known as the point-in-time count, found the number of “unsheltered” homeless people in Orange County grew 54 percent over the past four years, from 1,678 to 2,584 people. When homeless people in shelters were included, a total of 4,792 homeless people were counted countywide. The real number is believed to be higher, since the census can’t reach everyone.
Camps have grown significantly along the Santa Ana River, with the largest – the one near Angel Stadium – home to at least 420 people, according to a county survey in the summer.
The main camp grew even larger after county supervisors closed down camps along the riverbed in Fountain Valley and elsewhere, with people from those camps migrating to the Angel Stadium camp.
Politicians have also taken notice, with elected officials and candidates frequently discussing it and making it a campaign issue.
A June poll by Republican campaign pollster Adam Probolsky found the number-one issue voters care about in Orange County is homelessness, tied for first with affordable housing and living.
It’s expected to be a major focus in city and county-level elections in 2018.
A Surge in Activism for Homeless People, and Community Concerns About Camps
As the issue has grown, so too has the organizing of advocates on all sides.
Dozens of activists who support homeless people have packed county Board of Supervisors’ meetings to urge officials to follow through on promises to create housing. One advocate, lawyer Mohammed Aly, was handcuffed three times this year and charged with crimes twice for acts of disobedience: protesting in a restricted area as sheriff’s deputies evicted homeless people from the Santa Ana River, trying to clear out a puddle of unsanitary water at the riverbed camp, and refusing to leave the speaker podium at a supervisors’ meeting in September.
There also was a rise in legal advocacy for the homeless. Lawyer Brooke Weitzman filed lawsuits against the county and the city of Santa Ana challenging their seizing of property belonging to homeless people, and secured agreements from both governments to change their practices. The county settlement requires officials to give 24 hours’ written notice before seizing property along the riverbed, store it at a nearby location, and make it readily-accessible during normal business hours.
Groups of residents and businesses have raised concerns about the growing camps, with 14,000 people signing a petition seeking the removal of homeless camps along the Santa Ana River. Concerns include crime, such as thefts and drug use, as well as finding needles and human feces and urine in private businesses and residential areas.
Local restaurants have reported issues like homeless people showering in restrooms, yelling at employees, and doing drugs in the restrooms. Customers get scared and don’t come back, said Ryan Nguyen, who owns a Lee’s Sandwiches franchise in the city of Orange near the riverbed.
UC Irvine Researchers Found It’s Less Expensive to House Chronically Homeless People Than Keep Them on Streets
The researchers, sociology professors David Snow and Rachel Goldberg, examined data for hundreds of homeless people in Orange County, and found that housing with health and support services – known as permanent supportive housing – actually saves taxpayer money overall.
That’s mostly because of major reductions in emergency room visits and jail costs that the public is currently paying, they said.
“There’s a decline in uses of services across the board, once people are housed,” Snow said in May.
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 their findings.
But when they’re in permanent supportive housing, that total taxpayer cost drops to an average of $51,000 per person – a reduction of over $30,000, the study found. And the outcomes are better for the homeless person, with significant drops in emergency hospitalizations, arrests, and tickets, according to the researchers.
County officials agree affordable housing is key to ending homelessness.
“Certainly housing is the period at the end of the sentence on solving homelessness…It’s health and housing,” said Susan Price, the county government’s point person on addressing homelessness.
While creating affordable housing for homeless people is the main goal right now within the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, county supervisors see it differently.
County Supervisors Reject Requests They Take Leadership in Expanding Housing Supply
In February, a pair of Chapman University researchers warned county supervisors that the county’s existing poverty will worsen as the housing shortage continues to make rents skyrocket, leading even more people into homelessness and prompting businesses to move to other places where employees can afford to buy homes.
There’s a path to avoid that fate, they said: by bringing together government, businesses and universities to collaborate on expanding the housing supply and the number of well-paying jobs.
They asked the five county supervisors – who are the top countywide elected officials in Orange County – to take leadership on the issue.
But supervisors Andrew Do and Shawn Nelson criticized the researchers and suggested it’s not the supervisors’ role to take leadership on the issue. Nelson took issue with the idea that supervisors could lead a conversation among cities about adding housing density, saying city officials will be “apoplectic.”
Advocates have asked county supervisors to devote some of the dollars they control, which grew by over $40 million this fiscal year, toward building housing for homeless people with wraparound services.
The supervisors have declined to do so. Nelson has repeatedly said the county is shortchanged by Sacramento in the tax revenues it receives, and Do told a neighborhood group if the county provided housing to homeless people under the nationally-recognized “housing first” approach, the homes “will become crack houses.”
In June, the supervisors authorized $5 million in state mental health money to build housing for homeless people with severe mental illnesses, which would house about 1 percent of Orange County’s homeless population.
However, that $5 million has been held up for months, with county staff still awaiting a second approval by supervisors before they can move forward with devoting it to specific projects. Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who proposed the funding, said she expects supervisors to grant the second approval in January.
A ‘Transitional’ Shelter Opens, With a Lack of Affordable Homes for People to Transition To
The county’s 100-bed transitional shelter, Bridges at Kraemer, opened with much fanfare in May, with Supervisor Todd Spitzer declaring: “This is not a warehouse, this is a life-changing facility.”
But six months later, the lack of affordable housing sent eight homeless people back to the streets, because homes weren’t available before they hit the 180-day limit for them to stay at the shelter.
The shelter’s staff have done their job of getting people set for housing within 10 days of their arrival, according to Mercy House, the nonprofit group that operates it.
“What it highlights, in a very real and tangible way, is the need for permanent housing,” Larry Haynes, who leads Mercy House, said in a November interview about the people who returned to the streets. “We need to do everything we can to develop more permanent housing.”
Among the eight who were required to leave the 100-bed shelter, five either were allowed back in or now are in housing, and shelter staff have reached out to the other three but have not been able to locate them, according to Haynes. Shelter staff now have permission from the county to grant exceptions to the 180-day limit, according to Haynes and county officials.
Uncertainty Over Future of The Main Riverbed Camp
In October, Supervisor Nelson warned a community group the county likely would try to move people out of the riverbed camps in phases, and “push” many of the hundreds of homeless people who live there out into the city of Anaheim.
“I think you’re gonna start seeing, probably further south [on the riverbed], an effort to start getting people out of the river, removing locations that are…sort of an invitation to camp,” Nelson said.
“[You will] probably see more areas getting fenced off, smaller groups being relocated at a time,” he added.
Nelson said the effort to move out homeless people would later go north to the main camps near Angel Stadium sometime after the new year begins. He warned that under the current situation, with few available shelter beds for riverbed dwellers, homeless people would likely move into Anaheim.
“Unfortunately, the status that we’re in right now, if you push people out you will end up dealing with it in the city,” Nelson said.
The county followed through on the first stage in November, when it cleared out a large camp in Fountain Valley and shut down the entire riverbed to overnight camping, except for the main camp near Angel Stadium. That led many homeless people to move to the main camp, which the county hasn’t cleared out yet.
In December, county supervisors authorized the $8 million purchase of a large office building along the Santa Ana River to turn into a mental health and drug treatment facility, which some officials hope will pave the way to clearing homeless people out the riverbed. The county hasn’t said when the facility will open if the sale is finalized.
In the meantime, supervisors have extended their outreach contract with the nonprofit group City Net to try to help homeless people find affordable housing that’s in extremely short supply.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].