On the morning of January 28th, when arriving at work, the director of the San Clemente Senior Center found a 73-year-old man who slept there most nights. He had slept there in front of the Senior Center, next door to the fire station, for years. This morning, he was dead. Who is not doing their job? A lot of people. The so-called system of care apparently doesn’t care.

The research is clear: homelessness kills.

In Orange County, over three hundred people experiencing homelessness died last year, most living and perishing on the street. It’s February, and this gentleman in San Clemente, a senior with precipitously declining health, adds to the new year’s death total.

In such a rich county, this preventable loss of life raises many questions. How much money is given to contracted nonprofits to connect people to care? How much money is given to county agencies to do outreach? How much money is spent on law enforcement for their homeless liaison program? How much money is spent on code enforcement and our court system when people living outdoors are cited for things others of us do in our homes every day? How much money is spent on medical care for people whose health is horrifically impacted by living on the streets and in shelters? How much money is spent building and operating shelters? (None in Southernmost County.) How much money is spent studying homelessness and talking about homelessness? How much money is left on the table, not being spent at all?

How much does it cost to provide housing for seniors and people who have disabilities? A lot less than is spent on all of those other things. And I’ll tell you this, it costs lives not to.

As evidenced by documents accessed by the Voice of OC, it appears that the county only committed a small percentage of the $554 million in CARES Act funds it received to people experiencing homelessness. Despite that low percentage, and despite them closing down the Project Roomkey Hotel in South County, according to the Office of Care Coordination, the county still has money from the Cares Act that could be used to offer seniors and at-risk people motel rooms. The money, still part of Project Roomkey, would pay for motel rooms, food, and case management. That money could save lives. Could. But it didn’t. Why not?

Advocates in the southernmost part of the county have been trying to get people into motel rooms through Project Roomkey since at least the beginning of April 2020. But at least in San Clemente, despite a local non-profit who helps some people experiencing homelessness (used to help more until they were threatened with losing funding by mobs saying their help was “enabling”), a contract for outreach, a cameo appearance now and then from other homeless services agencies, OCSD homeless liaison deputies, an Orange County Healthcare Agency presence, and even a rare appearance from the Cal Optima medical field team, there are vulnerable people on the streets now who want help, some of whom are dying. Which agency can get these vulnerable people off the streets? Apparently, that is a closely guarded secret, at least in the southernmost part of the county. There are fingers pointing every which way.

This gentleman, when he’d get his check from Social Security, would get a motel room for a few nights. If he was lucky, he could time that for inclement weather. Don’t tell me he didn’t want help or he wanted to live on the street. And don’t tell me he refused this or that in the past. Did he ever decline to go to a shelter, a place none of us would want to stay?  A place where many people are contracting COVID? Maybe. But for at least the last few years, shelter has been completely inaccessible to southernmost county residents.

This senior gentleman, who died outside of the Senior Center, next door to the fire station, shouldn’t have died on that sidewalk. He shouldn’t have been sleeping on that sidewalk. All the outreach programs in the world, and programs like Project Roomkey, even a shelter, will do little toward permanently getting people like him off the street if there is no permanent housing available. We need affordable housing in South County where someone’s Social Security check can pay their rent. And we need Permanent Supportive Housing for our neighbors with disabilities who are without a safe place to call home.

And in San Clemente, while the city and the county point fingers at each other, and the city council, with the support of many community members, obstructs any possibility of providing housing for homeless disabled people, nothing gets done that will prevent this suffering, inhumanity, and death. I hope people will let their elected officials – county and city – know they want housing in their communities for homeless neighbors to be a priority.

Maura Mikulec, MSW, ASW, volunteer advocate with South County Homeless Task Force and Housing is a Human Right Orange County and resident of Capistrano Beach

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