As homeless deaths continue to skyrocket and another round of major rain storms slams the region, the county has no open-access winter homeless shelter for the first time in many years.
And county officials acknowledge they’re now years behind schedule in building the housing they say is needed to help get people off the streets.
The latest official count found 5,718 homeless people in Orange County a year ago, of whom about 3,000 were unsheltered.
County officials didn’t provide numbers when asked this week how many shelter beds are currently available.
For roughly 30 years, the county has operated open-access shelters – known as cold-weather armory shelters – funded by federal grant money.
But this winter, as heavy rains prompt government forecasters to warn of threats to homeless encampments, no such shelter is open.
That’s despite a federal judge ordering months ago that the Santa Ana armory shelter be open until the end of March.
“The Court hereby determines that an emergency exists that justifies the activation of the Santa Ana Armory,” U.S. District Judge David O. Carter wrote in his Oct. 21 directive.
“In light of the anticipated inclement weather, the Court ORDERS the activation of the Armory forthwith, through March 31, 2023.”
As of this week, the armory still isn’t open and there’s no signs on the horizon of that changing.
Top county officials – CEO Frank Kim and homelessness czar Doug Brecht – didn’t return a message for comment on whether they’re violating the order.
But in a statement, county officials say they’re still looking for an operator and “alternative locations” for cold weather shelter, and finding shelter beds for people where possible.
“The County recognizes the benefit and importance of the Cold Weather Emergency Shelter for individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness during the winter months and is interested in providing this resource to the homeless community,” said a statement from county staff who work for Kim.
Carter had previously blocked the cold-weather shelter plans for a few days, siding with Santa Ana’s stance that other parts of the county need to host shelter. But he reversed himself on Oct. 21, ordering that the shelter open.
This week, weather forecasters warned that homeless people are especially vulnerable as dangerous flooding hits in the region from two major storms.
“Water flowing through normally dry rivers and washes will threaten homeless encampments,” the National Weather Service stated in a Monday bulletin.
“The [unhoused] people of South County have literally nothing … they’re often senior, more vulnerable,” said Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney representing homeless people in OC civil rights cases.
“The seniors in South County are just out in the rain, alone trying to stay alive.”
‘I’m Starting to Get A Lot of Calls’
Paul Leon, a former county public health nurse who founded and oversaw the non-profit homeless services organization, Illumination Foundation, says it’s a “shame” the county didn’t have a cold weather shelter in place.
Back in 2008, there were 550 beds available at the cold-weather shelters, he said.
“You can’t just jump off temporary shelter and not expect people to really suffer,” Leon said in an interview.
“I can tell because I’m starting to get a lot of calls from people that know me … who say ‘I’ve got a mom and two kids,’ or ‘I’ve got a couple people who are sick,’ and want to know where they can take them.”
Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who chairs the county’s homelessness commission, said the county probably would have a shelter open already, but no groups stepped forward to operate it when the county asked.
“We wanted a cold weather shelter. We put out an [request for proposals] last July for an operator…we needed somebody to operate it,” Chaffee said in an interview with Voice of OC.
“There were no responses. Put it out a second time, no responses.” he added, saying operators don’t like to staff up for short-term work.
“If we had an operator then I think we might have had something open,” he said.
As for Judge Carter’s order, Chaffee said: “It’s not so much an order as authorization for it to open,” by getting Santa Ana “to back off.”
The missing shelter comes as coroner records show homeless deaths continuing to skyrocket in Orange County.
Through November, 449 homeless people had died so far in Orange County in 2022, according to Father Dennis Kriz, a pastor in Fullerton who tracks county coroner data on homeless deaths.
That’s more than double the 210 deaths in 2018, and a major jump from the 381 deaths in 2021.
“We’re well on our way to having another year where the number reduction in homelessness is the same as the number of people who died in the streets this year,” said Weitzman.
She said she asked the county what their plan is for the storm after the governor declared a state of emergency over the storms, but that she hasn’t received anything in response.
Things like opening senior centers to let homeless seniors come in and get warm and dry “could save lives,” she said.
County officials declined to arrange a phone interview with Brecht, the county’s chief official on homelessness efforts.
But in the statement, he and his colleagues noted that hundreds of shelter beds have been added in recent years, and that vacant beds “are prioritized for those that are in most need.”
Two days after Voice of OC asked, there were no answers from county officials on how many beds are available and whether their eligibility is restricted to law enforcement and hospital drop-offs.
Weitzman said the county is acknowledging the shelter bed shortage.
“If they need to [be] “prioritized for those that are in most need,” I suspect that means they know they turn people away daily,” Weitzman said.
“Unfortunately, the numbers are also real and we can all see that the additional resources are growing at a far slower pace than the desperate need.”
There are also lingering questions about whether the county is actually using the funds it receives for services – something that’s been an issue before.
Weitzman says the county isn’t fully using the $4.7 million it received from the state a year ago to help seniors in group shelters quickly get motel and hotel rooms.
“They still have [most of] the money,” she said of the Home Safe grant program.
“The county could use that money today, in compliance with the state’s direction, to get every person 60 or over set up with a case worker” and into a motel or hotel, Weitzman said.
Brecht and county spokeswoman Molly Nichelson didn’t respond to an email to comment on such concerns.
Weitzman said she’s been trying to help a senior in South County get into the program, but that the county won’t even have someone talk to the man to process his request.
“Despite our persistent calls over three weeks, we still have yet to get [county] Adult Protective Services to fully process a referral to connect with him to even see what he needs, much less get into housing,” Weitzman said.
The county has been informed the man is “well over 60 and medically fragile and had no ability to get himself out of the rain.”
When the county and a handful of cities faced a federal lawsuit over the handling of homelessness in 2018, Carter lambasted OC officials for not spending the millions of dollars in grants aimed at funding homeless relief programs – something he called “chipmunking.”
Orange County Falls Behind Housing Goals
In 2018, county leaders set a goal of building 2,700 housing units for homeless people with on-site support services – something studies show saves taxpayers more money than it costs through reduced hospital and law enforcement bills.
But nearly five years later, OC has finished only about 17% of that goal, according to the latest data from the Orange County Housing Finance Trust, the joint city-county agency that coordinates funding for the projects.
As of this week, a total of 479 permanent supportive housing units have been “completed,” while another 608 are under construction, according to the agency’s data.
At their most recent meeting in December, county officials pushed back their goal to complete the 2,700 units by four years, from 2025 to 2029.
“The thing we have to do if we want to get ahead of [growing homelessness], is get housing and housing projects online this year,” Weitzman said.
Outgoing county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett recently told Voice of OC the county is “moving as quickly as possible” to build out the 2,700 housing units.
But her colleague, Katrina Foley, said there definitely are ways to move faster, and that the areas she’s represented prove it.
State leaders have set aside billions of dollars for local governments to convert motels, hotels and other buildings into permanent supportive housing, under a grant program known as “Project Homekey.”
That means money isn’t a barrier anymore to creating housing, said Foley.
“The money is available if people are ready to go” with projects, she said.
Foley has convened mayors and city managers in the areas she represents to encourage them to allow motel conversions – the only county supervisor known to have done so.
The vast majority of the county’s motel conversions are in the district the Foley was elected to represent in 2021.
Foley said officials need to be proactive about identifying properties “so we can pounce when we have funding grant opportunities.”
Vicente Sarmiento, the newest county supervisor, has emphasized the need for other cities besides his hometown of Santa Ana to step up more in hosting homeless services and housing.
He recently told Voice of OC that as a supervisor, he wants to work toward a “regionally balanced and shared, needs-based strategy for addressing the issue with our unhoused neighbors.”
In addition to Santa Ana, cities like Anaheim, Stanton and Costa Mesa have agreed to host motel conversion projects.
Mayors have credited those conversions as making their communities safer by reducing crime and nuisance calls at the motels, while improving the lives of the people who move into the properties.
Santa Ana has also touted successes with its motel conversion projects, known as The Orchard and Casa Querencia, that together house around 125 formerly homeless people.
According to city officials, 97% of residents in both projects during the past year continued to stay in permanent housing.
And based on UC Irvine’s homelessness cost study from 2018, the city says the conversions save taxpayers as much as $21 million per year.
County officials have also seen one of their major nonprofit contractors – United Way of Orange County – fail to deliver on promises to find housing for around 500 homeless people eligible for federal vouchers.
United Way attributed the issue to a more difficult rental market. But county officials countered that other contractors were able to meet their promises.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.