More than 200 homeless people died in Orange County this year, drawing unanswered questions from activists about why the county’s main strategy to end homelessness has gone mostly unfunded.
The county’s plan to end homelessness declared permanent housing as a “top priority” starting in 2012, in line with national recommendations and a UC Irvine study that showed large overall taxpayer savings compared with leaving disabled homeless people on the streets. The savings are largely due to reduced emergency room visits, jail stays and other costs.
Yet so far, county supervisors have focused county dollars mainly on building and operating shelters, which officials acknowledge does not solve homelessness unless people have affordable housing with support services to move into.
At the supervisors’ Dec. 17 meeting, homeless activists called on the supervisors to fund the housing strategy, as they read aloud the names of homeless people who died on Orange County’s streets. The reading of names was cut short after the supervisors’ chairwoman, Lisa Bartlett, shortened the homeless activists’ speaking time from three minutes to two minutes each, after letting company executives speak for three minutes each.
“Unfortunately, my loving father Paul Frank Brazer was one of the people we lost in Orange County this year to homelessness and the lack of appropriate services,” said Katie Brazer, who cried as she addressed supervisors. Her father had severe pneumonia, and died in April from an overdose in a Santa Ana parking lot, according to coroner records.
“We miss him and we pray that his energy and joy he brought to all of our lives –” Brazer continued, as Bartlett said her time was up, called for the next speaker, and cut Brazer’s microphone.
Supervisor Andrew Do was the only supervisor to respond to the speakers, saying he and his colleagues have been supporting affordable housing.
Do pointed to the board’s decision in March 2018 – under intense court pressure – to designate $70.5 million for mental health housing, from state mental health money the supervisors had been stockpiling for years.
About 20 months after $70.5 million promise, $30.5 million of the were not put toward housing programs until the supervisors’ Dec. 17 meeting.
“This work is not done. This is only one more step in the many steps that we will take to address this need for housing,” Do said.
He said the $40 million in state mental health money already allocated is funding 296 units of mental health supportive housing, and that the county is working with cities on a strategy to fund 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing.
Nearly two years since the 2,700 units plan gained support, 24 units have been built and 280 are under construction, according to official data.
Do did not explain why it took supervisors more than a year and a half to put $30.5 million of the state mental health money he had promised towards specific programs to develop housing. He and a county spokeswoman didn’t return phone messages asking why.
The other supervisors – Don Wagner, Doug Chaffee, Michelle Steel, and Lisa Bartlett – did not respond to the 16 speakers’ concerns.
According to official coroner data, which does not include all homeless deaths in the county, 200 homeless people died in 2019 through Dec. 16. Father Dennis Kriz, pastor of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton, cited an additional death this year of a homeless person, Andrea Skelton, whose name and place of death aren’t in the coroner records.
Under state law, coroners typically are not notified when people die in hospitals or under a doctor’s care elsewhere.
All deaths are supposed to be reported into a state health database that county officials have access to. The more complete data on homeless deaths wasn’t made available earlier this month by county health officials, after requests from Voice of OC.
[Click here for the coroner’s list of homeless people who died in Orange County this year. It does not include people who died in a hospital or under a doctor’s care, which usually are not reported to the coroner.]
Over the last two years, homeless people died in OC at an average age of 50 years, compared with the countywide life expectancy of 82 years, according to official data.
“Everybody dies. Everybody. But most of us don’t die by the age of 48. Being homeless on streets of Orange County is a death sentence,” said Jeanine Robbins, an Anaheim resident and activist with Housing is a Human Right OC, during the supervisors’ Dec. 17 meeting.
“Had this board fulfilled their 10-year plan to end homelessness, perhaps we would not be here reading the names of over 200 individuals who died on the streets of this county this last year,” Robbins continued.
“I would hope that we would not have to be here next year. However, based on your actions I sincerely doubt that. So we will see you again.”
In shortening the speaking time from three minutes to two minutes, Bartlett said she wanted to make sure supervisors could get through their agenda items and let others speak on other items.
But earlier in the meeting, Bartlett let executives of electricity companies who were seeking a county contract speak for three minutes each. When one of the executives finished speaking, Bartlett said, “Right at three minutes. Good job.”
Her decision to cut the homeless activists’ time, but not the company executives, drew pushback.
“Two minutes. Your decision and excuse to limit remembering those who have passed is unconscionable,” said homeless advocate David Duran.
“I would like to just say to you Lisa, how dare you cut our time…when you give the speakers about utility companies three minutes. But yet to read the names of the homeless individuals who died – how dare you cut our time,” said Robbins.
Bartlett did not respond. “Next speaker, please,” she said.
At another point, while Duran was accusing supervisors neglecting the homelessness crisis, supervisors Don Wagner and Michelle Steel leaned over to each other to talk among themselves.
“Excuse me, am I bothering you and your conversation?” Duran asked, to which Steel and Wagner did not respond.
Duran continued: “This is a good example of neglect.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.