OC Moves to Actually Count Homeless People

Tracy Wood/Voice of OC

Elizabeth, a homeless woman with her dogs near La Palma Park in Anaheim on Monday.

For first time in years, county officials will actually count how many homeless people live in Orange County, their demographics, and why they are homeless.

In recent months, officials have said the prior “point-in-time” counts – which play a key role in policy and funding decisions – are actually estimates.

“Before, it was sort of an extrapolation based on some numbers,” county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said during the supervisors’ regular meeting Tuesday.

“The methodology that was used in 2017, ’15, and ’13…was an extrapolation,” said Susan Price, the county’s top homeless services coordinator, in public comments at the meeting.

The next count, in January 2019, “will be an actual count,” county staff wrote in a report this month.

“This will give us more accurate info than we’ve really ever had,” Price said Tuesday of the upcoming count. “What we will achieve is actual demographics on actual people, where they were located.”

The actual number of unsheltered homeless people was likely much higher than reflected in the last official count, Price told reporters in June outside a federal court hearing on homelessness.

She said the next, “real” count is going to “blow [the existing numbers] out of the water.”

The last several counts – the most recent of which was January 2017 – were conducted in a single morning every other year, with volunteers and officials fanning out across the county.

Among other changes, the next count, in January 2019, will be take place over a 10-day period to gain a more complete picture of homelessness.

The 2017 count found 2,584 unsheltered homeless people in Orange County, which was up 54 percent from four years earlier.

The supervisors on Tuesday also voted to switch the county’s non-profit contractor to manage the point-in-time count from 2-1-1 Orange County to City Net, awarding a $390,000 no-bid contract for the January 2019 count.

The point-in-time counts are required by the federal government at least every two years, and serve as the official census of homeless people in Orange County.

The counts have significant implications for what responsibilities cities and the county have regarding homelessness, and provide basic demographics about how many homeless people are women, children, have a mental illness, and why they are homeless.

The 2017 count numbers are the basis by which U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is setting how much shelter space is needed for officials to be able to legally enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people. (He has called for enough beds to shelter 60 percent of the unsheltered homeless population reported in the 2017 count.)

The count is also used to figure out where homeless people are located and how many homeless people live in each of the county’s 34 cities. Up until now, that’s been an “extrapolation,” Price said in June, not an actual count.

One example of this is in the city of Santa Ana, which is widely considered the epicenter for homeless people in Orange County.

The county’s January 2017 count listed 466 unsheltered homeless people in Santa Ana. But when the city did its own count this March, it found 1,030 unsheltered homeless people – more than twice as many people as the county count.  Neither count included the roughly 400 people living in the county’s bus terminal shelter known as the Courtyard.

Price said in June she would venture to guess Santa Ana’s count was more accurate than the county’s. The county’s number was extrapolated by dividing up among the cities the total countywide count of homeless people, she noted.

The homeless counts have a major impact on federal and other aid dollars that are doled out according to population. Undercounting can translate into fewer shelter options for people living on the streets.

That bottleneck of shelter shortage continues to hamper county efforts to address homelessness.

This week, Father Dennis Kriz, pastor of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton, told county supervisors said the county’s outreach contractor faces a stark shortage in finding places for homeless people to go.

“City Net has 600 people…that are document-ready to be placed,” Kriz told county supervisors.

“Of those, they placed last month 27 [people]. So to clear their queue presently would be 22 months, and that’s if nobody else comes in.”

Referring to homeless people who the church lets sleep on their property, Kriz added: “I’ve got 20 to 30 people sleeping on our grounds…there’s no place to put them right now.”

Meanwhile, the ongoing saga over the Baymont motel, where the county set up shelter for homeless people with mental illnesses, has flared up again.

The county’s lease for the motel ends this Friday, Aug. 31. On Tuesday county supervisors authorized the filing of court cases to evict anyone who remains at the property, in a legal procedure as an “unlawful detainer.”

The ultimate fate of the people who have been staying at the soon-to-close Baymont shelter has been a major focus in an ongoing federal lawsuit regarding homelessness in Orange County.

“Persons housed at the Baymont were all assessed as severely and persistently mentally ill,” states an amended lawsuit filed by attorneys for homeless people in late July.

“In addition, the two emergency winter shelters at the Santa Ana and Fullerton armories closed last week after an initial three-month extension by the Governor. Hundreds of people are, once again, without a place to sleep at night other than on the streets, in the parks and in other public places, where they are experiencing harassment and arrest by law enforcement.

“All of this underscores the failure of the County to have an adequate system of care in place that meets the needs of the client population.”

Carter, the judge presiding over the case, has scheduled a court hearing in the case for next Friday, Sept. 7.

If the homeless people’s attorneys are not satisfied with progress in addressing homelessness, Carter has said they can file a request for a court order against county and city officials and the judge will then have to rule on the order.

“The last thing I want to do is come down with a [temporary restraining order]. But unless I see progress, I’m now inviting counsel to bring it,” said Carter, looking at attorneys for the homeless at the most recent hearing, on August 3.

“Put up or shut up.”