Almost 7,000 Homeless People Counted in OC Amid Housing Debate

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

An unidentified homeless man who was counted in the 2019 Orange County point in time count holding a donated bag of socks and care items.

Final data released Tuesday show 6,860 homeless people were counted on the streets and shelters of Orange County this January – up 43 percent from two years earlier.

Discussion of the point in time count numbers at Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting reflected an ongoing debate about whether the county is moving quickly on what officials and advocates agree is key to reducing homelessness: creating affordable housing with support services.

“Not just in Orange County, but across the state, we have a shortage of both affordable and available housing to meet the needs of our populations,” said Susan Price, the county’s coordinator of homeless services.

An additional 600 or so shelter beds were created in OC over the past couple of years, with another 600 or 700 on the way, she said.

“We’re working on the system in all components…to the endgame, which is housing for everyone.”

[Click here to read the final point in time count report.]

Advocates criticized the county for not doing more to implement its own housing strategy. They said homeless people were languishing in shelters and dying on the streets while the county moves slowly in creating the housing it’s promised.

“Shelters are not homes. People deteriorate in shelters. There’s nowhere for them to go,” said Thomas Fielder, an Anaheim resident and advocate.

“This county has gotten derailed into a shelter-first plan,” said Jeanine Robbins, an advocate who also lives in Anaheim.

The point in time report says 675 shelter beds were added countywide from 2017 to 2019, while transitional housing decreased by 42 beds over the same period.

County officials said they’ve added permanent supportive housing, with another 1,500 or 1,800 units on the way, though the numbers were not included in the point in time report.

Voice of OC asked a county spokeswoman for a breakdown of the housing units created since early 2018 and those in the pipeline. As of Tuesday evening, the spokeswoman didn’t have a breakdown, but said there were about 800 units that either have applied to the county for funding, are fully funded, or under construction.

Another 1,000 units are in a “preliminary pipeline,” meaning they are proposed but have not yet made a funding application to the county, said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Nentwig.

Supervisor Andrew Do said the county’s hands were tied when it comes to creating new housing.

“The county, we are the facilitator. We are the people that provide the gap funding in order to make services happen. And that’s what we have been doing,” Do said.

Advocates said the supervisors could take more action by funding homeless housing with some of the $900 million in discretionary money they control. Most of the new discretionary funding each year goes to the Sheriff’s Department, with most of that money paying for salary raises to keep existing services.

“Why all this fuss and bother about emergency shelters? Let’s get people into housing. You control close to a billion dollars in discretionary funding,” Fielder said.

Advocates also pointed to an estimate last month from the county health plan CalOptima that 10,000 people were in homeless in Orange County, based on a data analysis of its members, many of whom are homeless.

Advocates considered this number to be more accurate, and said point in time count volunteers simply did not have enough time to find every homeless person over a two-day period this January.

Do, who sits on the CalOptima board, criticized advocates for pointing to the agency’s numbers.

“You rely on CalOptima, based on some staff crunching some numbers with not a single boot on the ground,” Do said. “All they did is punch [in] some number,” he added, calling it an “alternate reality.”

CalOptima officials have said their estimate looked at the number of people who were homeless over a 12 month period, rather than a single snapshot in time like the point in time count.

CalOptima’s chief medical officer, David Ramirez, has said the agency determined its members were homeless if they lacked an address, or were using a homeless shelter address, along with information from members’ medical claims to determine if they were homeless.

The county’s point in time count in January found 2,899 homeless people in shelters and 3,961 were unsheltered on the streets, in cars, and elsewhere.

Among its other findings:

  • About one in four homeless people in Orange County – totaling 1,654 people – reported having mental health issues.
  • 763 homeless people were counted in south county, of whom 90 were in shelter.

The count “yielded data that will be useful for years to come,” said Matt Bates, vice president of City Net, a nonprofit homeless outreach organization the county hired to help with the count.

County supervisors have set a goal of ending veteran homelessness in Orange County by the end of next year, by focusing time and money on helping connect former service members to housing.

A total of 311 homeless veterans were counted in Orange County as part of the January census. The county’s initiative is housing about 20 veterans per month, Price said.

“We are going to be able to end veterans’ homelessness by December of 2020,” said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, adding the existing process needs to be sped up.

She directed county staff to prepare a six month, $200,000 no-bid contract for housing navigation services to connect veterans to housing.

Advocates said homeless people will continue to die on the streets until housing is provided.

“The most devastating part of Orange County is allowing people to die because they’re poor,” said homeless advocate David Duran.

County officials emphasized people will need to work together if homelessness is to be solved.

“It’ll take a village to end veteran homelessness and to end homelessness in our county,” Price said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of the proposed housing navigation contract. The direction was for the contract to be $200,000 over six months.

Contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.