Starting today, public health officials and scores of volunteers will scan Orange County’s north, central, coastal, and southern areas to count the number of homeless people currently staying in shelters or those they come across on the streets. 

It will be the first time the county’s conducted such an effort – known as the Point-in-Time count – since 2019, before a COVID-19 pandemic postponed the 2021 count, restricted emergency shelters’ operations, and brought economic hardship to people already on the verge of homelessness in Orange County.

Yet, seeing slow progress on the homelessness crisis, some are increasingly questioning the point behind the Point-in-Time count, which is required by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development and on paper factors into federal funding received by the county.

On one hand, “the data helps us figure out what we need,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center who sued the county in 2018 on behalf of homeless people over that year’s Santa Ana Riverbed camp removal.

But the data has not resulted in an accelerated permanent housing boost to meet the needs of Orange County’s homeless population thus far, Weitzman said.

“Until we are actually developing housing to meet any part of that need, I’m not sure how much more accurate data will make a difference — it will show us how we’re still failing,” Weitzman said. 

“I think the real challenge is that data without action is useless.”

A desperate campaign has kicked off to house 630 people and/or families in Orange County before their housing vouchers expire by June this year, according to Orange County United Way. The campaign is raising money for security deposits, unit holding costs, and furnishings, and has put out a call for housing program referrals. Learn more about the campaign here.

And one of the county’s own top homelessness officials, speaking to Voice of OC on Thursday, acknowledged the difficulty of trying to match homeless people in their case files with the few housing units that are available in the region.

“We do know, in Orange County, we’re having a challenge finding affordable apartment units. We’re not completely blind to that,” said Douglas Becht, the new director for the County of Orange’s Office of Care Coordination, who will help oversee the Point-in-Time count.

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Becht made those remarks during a separate phone interview, discussing the county’s current effort to increase its housing supply through the conversion of two Stanton motels – the Tahiti Motel and Stanton Inn and Suites – to permanent housing facilities, as part of the county’s participation in the state’s Project Homekey program. 

That conversion effort, however, means the homeless people currently staying in the motels for COVID-19 isolation, under the state’s separate Project Roomkey program, will be moved out to make way for construction. 

By the end of August, homeless people isolated in the motels will have had to find their next housing situation elsewhere.

In the Thursday phone interview, Becht said his office believes that “through the natural progression” of current efforts to connect people at the motels with housing services – and the fact that the motels have stopped Roomkey intake – that most people will be accounted for by the time the deadline rolls around. 

“Whoever’s left by Aug. 31, we’re fully committed to making sure that they will transition to somewhere that is suitable and appropriate for them as they continue to work towards permanent housing,” Becht said. 

Becht said “at the moment, a large amount of the folks that are at these two sites are connected to vouchers” for housing. 

Asked whether there’s enough housing in the county for those vouchers, Becht acknowledged the housing unit availability issue. 

Still, Becht said, “It’s not like, by August, we’ll say, ‘Eh, it was a good run, but things didn’t work out, good luck somewhere else.’ No, we are fully committed to working with folks until they get permanent housing.”

Becht also said that the Point-in-Time count “is very valuable.”

It illustrates not just the number of homeless people in the county — but also their profile.

For example, the last 2019 count found 2,899 people in Orange County were in an emergency or transitional shelter and 3,961 were unsheltered. More than 300 were veterans. Nearly 300 were young people. 

More than 600 were seniors. 

The count also found 466 families living on the streets.

Becht points to the County of Orange’s goal of building 2,700 affordable housing units and units with wraparound services for employment and mental health needs by June 30, 2025 – a goal set by the county four years ago, in 2018. 

“That 2,700 number is one that wasn’t picked out of the sky randomly but was one that was developed, in part, due to the previous Point-in-Time counts,” Becht said.

Four years since setting that goal, and three years to go, the county is just a quarter of the way to its objective of building 2,700 total affordable and permanent supportive housing units by June 30, 2025, according to official data. 

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County officials have three more years to finish the current construction of 992 total units and are still in the process of financing the construction of 961 units, as of January, according to the data. 

More than 680 units of housing have been built so far, as of January. The data also shows that 395 units of permanent supportive housing have been built, and those units will provide people with wraparound services for their employment and mental health needs.

Adam Eliason, manager for the Orange County Housing Finance Trust – a panel set up to help the county toward the 2,700 goal – said an affordable housing development is a longer process than a market-rate housing development. 

Market-rate developers “can get to the point of breaking ground so much faster than affordable housing because they usually have one lender,” Eliason said. “So when this goal was established, it was established knowing affordable housing projects have a lag time of years to get multiple affordable capital sources and the subsidy funding needed to break ground and start construction.”

“Months prior to the closing of an affordable housing construction loan, dozens of people are coordinating the loan documents from a variety of state, county, local and other financing sources to ensure they are all in agreement,” Eliason said.

He compares the process of achieving the 2,700 permanent supportive housing goals by 2025 to a “train leaving the station,” one which starts out slowly because the complex financing “needs to build momentum — we left the station a long time ago.”

Weitzman says little progress has been made, pointing to the fact that January marked a new monthly record for homelessness deaths on the streets of Orange County.

“Everyone’s also coming for the providers,” Weitzman said, pointing to the City of Orange’s effort to kick out a longstanding homeless soup kitchen known as Mary’s Kitchen by May 1

She also points to the City of Santa Ana revoking a permit for a drug addiction clinic that helps homeless people struggling with substance abuse, as detailed by the Los Angeles Times.

“When it’s so obvious we’re not taking the steps we need to with the data we have … it (the count) might not change anything,” Weitzman said.

With COVID-19, county officials as of Friday were also searching for more volunteers.

“There are more than 570 people currently signed up to volunteer for the Point in Time Count occurring next week,” Becht said in an emailed response to follow-up questions Friday. “Ideally, more than 600 individuals will volunteer over the course of the 3-day event.”

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