In Orange County, the longest night is often the coldest.

Public coroner records show that this year nearly 500 people died on our streets, an increase of about 100 from last year. 

These deaths keep rising each year. 

At 7.p.m tonight, local leaders will gather to remember those lost, at the Lutheran Church of the Cross in Laguna Woods, holding Orange County’s 7th annual Homeless Persons’ Interreligious Memorial Service. 

The church is located at 24231 El Toro Road in Laguna Woods. 

The interfaith event, led by a host of religious leaders like Bishop Kevin Vann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, will feature leaders reading aloud the names of homeless people who died on the streets of Orange County this year. 

Organizers will seek to offer dignity to these forgotten neighbors, with each person having a candle carried to an altar in a procession. 

Candles are placed on vacant chairs during a vigil in Orange County. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

The memorial service is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, Our Father’s Table, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Volunteer Network OC, the Orange County Interfaith Network and Lutheran Church of the Cross.

Many of these church leaders won’t publicly call out county supervisors – who manage billions of dollars granted to them by a host of taxpayers to guard the most vulnerable. But thankfully there are a host of volunteers watching the carnage on our streets who will. 

Yesterday, those kinds of real civic leaders walked up to the podium of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to send a loud message to board members: It’s unacceptable to fail so miserably at this mission while hundreds die on the streets.

County officials recently pushed back their homeless housing goals by another four years.

Tim Houchen, who himself once experienced homelessness living at the county Civic Center in the 2010s and now works with homeless people trying to get off the streets, said OC supervisors really need to actually implement their own goals for permanent supportive housing. 

“One thing remains clear,” he said. “Those not housed are at a greater risk of death.”

Activist Lou Noble, who has been arrested in Anaheim for standing up for homeless people, also gave supervisors a frank talk – coaching them to take Judge David Carter’s advice when they landed in federal court to get creative with small shelters on established county lands that are already zoned for such purposes. 

County Leaders Sit on Tons of Empty Land 

County leaders are sitting on more than 100 acres in Irvine around the Great Park near the 5 freeway that is already zoned for such uses.

Across the county in Costa Mesa, the state-owned Fairview Developmental Center remains idle, another 114-acre campus that could really change lives. But city leaders there are looking at developing the property into some type of housing development, potentially with retail and commercial properties on it.

There’s also been little public reporting on the status of efforts by the United Way to get homeless people into apartments under federal vouchers – something the county says United Way fell flat on this year

We have seen some progress on motel conversions, but not as many as could have been switched during the pandemic. 

And frankly this week the price announced for six motels – $366 million for about 300 units – seemed really high. 

Father Denis Kriz, pastor at St. Philip Benizi Church in Fullerton, looked County Supervisors squarely in the eye on Tuesday, warning them in a soft voice, “we honestly can do better.”

Tents belonging to homeless people are pitched along a public sidewalk in Orange County. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Kriz challenged supervisors to get creative, maybe just finding a place for desperate, unhoused people where they can at the very least park and sleep in their cars.

“The stress you put on these people, when they lose their cars, you put them in a hard place,” Kriz noted.

He also advised supervisors that every month, there will be an accounting of residents who died on the streets. 

And every year, there will be a memorial.

Kriz, who tallies the homeless deaths every month in Voice of OC op-eds, reminded county supervisors that today he will publish the entire list for the year – a sobering statement of failure for all of us to ponder during our holiday gatherings and break.

Celebrating Failure

Consider that nearly five years ago, county leaders all came together, to much PR fanfare, and announced a bold effort to create 2,700 permanent housing units in three years, acknowledging that a central policy tool in solving homelessness is getting people into housing that offers wraparound services like medical and mental health, along with help on job hunting. 

They all went to Sacramento, they got fancy legislation approved in record time and lots of politicians got a great photo opportunity, creating another layer of government, the OC Housing Finance Trust

But this week, county bureaucrats reminded us all that after all the fancy parties and official victory laps, the goal of 2,700 units quietly got moved back and current estimates don’t see anything close to that kind of housing coming online for years. 

The goal was to create these units by 2025. But in recent weeks, county officials pushed it back by four years – to 2029.

So our official solution for homeless people is to just live on the streets for a few more years.

While county supervisors keep kidding themselves publicly about the county’s stunning lack of progress and the mounting death toll, residents should not. 

The biggest issue facing county leaders on homelessness is their lack of focus, curiosity, ingenuity and questioning. 

I noticed recently that county leaders were presented with the annual Condition of Children report, which concluded that as much as one in four Orange County children are living in poverty.

And over 700 children are homeless in Orange County, according to this year’s point in time count.

Not a question from one county supervisor in public on the children’s report. 

Same for COVID. 

Despite an ongoing surge, there’s no real questions from county supervisors in public – much less news conferences or rapid, daily updates of infections on county websites. 

Consider the Orange County Power Authority vote yesterday, when county supervisors voted 3-2 to leave the agency amid questions of openness and transparency. 

Supervisors’ Chairman Doug Chaffee made one of the most frank and bravest admissions I’ve seen an elected leader make in my nearly two decades covering the Board of Supervisors. 

He should have asked more questions before joining. 

Again and again, that’s the pattern for too many elected leaders. 

They don’t ask enough questions in public.

They don’t engage in enough debate.

And when it comes to government, questioning more in public – while often ugly – definitely saves money and might actually save lives. 

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You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

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