As a new report shows a sharp increase in homeless people dying in Orange County in the last decade, officials are moving forward with another survey of the county’s homeless population.
Some advocates for the homeless like attorney Brooke Weitzman question why this survey is necessary.
“Getting more resources into the hands of our most vulnerable residents always is a good thing. But we already know the gaps: we are not building enough affordable housing, so voucher holders linger in shelters; we do not have enough homekey projects and the ones we have are moving slowly,” she said, reacting to the Supervisors’ vote last month to move forward with a survey.
Weitzman, who routinely advocates for homeless people and represents them in court cases, said officials need to make it easier to get help.
“There is not a single door in OC where a person can walk in and request help, they must instead navigate the fractured city by city system and hope a city agrees they are a ‘resident’ to get even basic case management,” she said.
Molly Nicholsen, a spokesperson for the county, wrote in a Feb. 8 email that the county continues to invest in supporting the development of affordable housing as well as supportive services for people who are homeless.
“The County recognizes that there is an urgency in these efforts and opportunity for improvement in the delivery of services, which is why the 2023 Survey will be helpful in receiving feedback from the people we serve,” she wrote in response to Weitzman’s quote.
Meanwhile, people living on the streets are dying at higher rates.
On Monday, the county’s first homeless death review committee – helmed by the Sheriff Department’s Coroner division and commissioned by Sheriff Don Barnes in 2022– released its inaugural report on homeless people who died looking at data from 2021.
The findings show that deaths among homeless people have been substantially on the rise for the last decade, shooting up from 103 in 2012 to 395 in 2021 with the main cause of death being drug-related. Fentanyl was a factor in 144 of the deaths.
It’s a trend that’s been continuously highlighted by Father Dennis Kriz of St. Philip Benizi’s Church in Fullerton. Every month in Voice of OC’s community opinion selection, Kriz details the names of the people who’ve died on the streets – showing a sharp uptick in recent years.
The review committee is calling for legislation to allow for a full sharing of data between committee members rather than be dependent on aggregated data. There’s no policy recommendations on things like how to streamline services and get people into shelters or housing.
Instead the committee recommended other county departments continue to improve opportunities for substance abuse treatment and called on the Sheriff’s department and other county departments to try and get more Narcan – which can be used to reverse an overdose.
They also called for changes in sentencing laws to compel people to take part in substance abuse treatment.
Click here to read the full report.
Orange County officials already conduct a homeless survey called the Point in Time Count – something mandated by federal officials.
The County’s 2022 point in time count shows that there were 5,718 homeless people in OC last year and over 3,000 of those people were unsheltered.
Nicholsen said that this year’s survey will be led by the Commission to End Homelessness and meant to ask questions not typically asked in the point in time count.
“The primary purpose of the 2023 Survey will be to collect feedback from the people experiencing homelessness about which homeless services are effective or ineffective, gaps and barriers in services; access to services; and available resources,” Nicholson wrote.
“The information collected through the 2023 Survey will be used to help inform the development and coordination of regional resources to assist in addressing homelessness.”
She is asking what has changed since the results of those surveys and what steps has the county taken to support the development of affordable and supportive housing as well as wrap around supportive services for unhoused folks.
“The voices of the impacted community are critical – but if there is no real plan to make systemic change in the resources – and we already know all the shelters and medical beds are full all the time – what is the goal? Is it to confirm that there are not enough resources?” she wrote.
“When there is a waitlist for every shelter, and people who were not at all connected (especially seniors) always appear when there is a possibility of access to HomeKey (non-congregate shelter), what other information will cause them to act?”
Still, county supervisors voted unanimously at their meeting on Feb. 7 to move forward with a $160,000 contract with City Net for the 2023 homeless survey.
“It does not necessarily provide any services, it’s a survey. But if we encounter somebody out there, I assume they’ll be referred to the need agency that will help them,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee at the Feb. 7 meeting
Doug Brecht, Director of Office of Care Coordination, told supervisors at the meeting that they’re looking to survey over 600 people.
“We’re looking to get a better understanding of the folks that are out there, their needs, and how we as a county and community might be able to help direct policy and programming that will better address that,” he said.
“We are very interested in making sure we connect with those that have been out there the longest to hear how can we help them?”
Brecht also acknowledged the county system to help homeless people has room for growth.
As an incentive to answer the survey, people are expected to be given a $10 gift card.
Supervisor Katrina Foley at the meeting called for a greater incentive.
“I don’t think that’s very much of an incentive, frankly so I would reiterate my request that we increase it to a $25 grocery gift card,” Foley said. “ A $25 grocery gift card actually could help somebody for more than just a meal.”
Supervisor’s Chairman Don Wagner said the gift cards are an incentive for participants to get medical help and not geared for support.
“At least some of those $10 gift cards come directly out of my office budget. And the idea is not to necessarily provide support, it is to provide a small incentive, so that the recipient actually makes and keeps the doctor appointment and otherwise,” he said.
In recent months, the county has offered another type of support for homeless folks.
Earlier this year, the county and officials in Fullerton partnered up to open a temporary cold weather shelter without walk-ins.
Nicholsen wrote that the 2023 survey is expected to be conducted during the spring across all of OC with results expected to be compiled in the summer and presented to the commission in the fall.
“Policymakers try to allocate resources, we don’t have a magic wand, and we don’t have a silver bullet, nor do we have any better insight than those who are actually going to be receiving the services, who need the services,” said Supervisor Vicente Sarimiento at the meeting.
“I think it’s a really strong, strong effort. I think meeting people where they’re at, is also really important.”
Nick Gerda contributed to the reporting in this article.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.