The decades-long homelessness epidemic was at its worst point in 2009, as the Great Recession worsened, when officials estimated as many as 21,479 Orange Countians were living on the streets annually. By 2015, the numbers were down to 15,291. The homeless count for 2017 will be released next month.
But there are signs of hope. The first county-funded, year-round emergency shelter is scheduled to open 100 beds this month (full capacity will be 200). County government’s first Coordinator of Care, Susan Price—the “homeless czar”—has identified a slew of problems: computer networks that are inadequate for connecting the needy to services; fragmented resources; not enough emergency shelter beds; and well-meaning stakeholders who won’t work together.
An estimated 21 percent of the county’s population lives below the California Poverty Measure of $33,630 in annual resources for a family of four, meaning even more folks are just a paycheck or two away from ending up on the street. What follows are some perspectives on the problem from those closest to it.
Santa Ana’s Main public Library was among 10 in the country in 2016 to be honored with the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service. But what made bigger headlines was the library’s growing reputation as a sanctuary for the homeless. Library operations manager Folmar works at the Civic Center, ground zero for this social crisis.
“There are days when the homeless folks outnumber the other folks in the library. Vandalism has increased. We find syringes everywhere. Everywhere. Some of our parents no longer want to bring their children here. Teenagers don’t want to come here to do their schoolwork. It’s a difficult, frustrating situation because we are a public service obligated to serving everyone.”
“We recognize and know some of the homeless. Some have been here a long time. But we’re also seeing new (homeless) people, people who don’t know how to behave. … We ask for civil behavior.”
“There has been some improvement since the city opened the (emergency shelter bus) terminal. And we now have four security guards instead of two. But the money spent on the guards could have been spent on other services.”
The Affordable Housing Gap
How a shortage of supply fuels homelessness
A lack of affordable housing stands at the core of Orange County’s homeless problem. The fair market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in the county is $1,324. The numbers tell the story:
Experts call the housing shortage severe and say many more affordable units are needed than are under construction. Orange County requires 101,442 more affordable rental units to meet the demand, according to a report issued last year by the California Housing Partnership Corporation. The Kennedy Commission, a nonprofit group advocating for more affordable housing here, reports that there are approximately 7,000 affordable units recently built, under construction, or in the pipeline—woefully short of the need.
“We have more community opposition (to affordable housing) and a lack of political will,” says Scott Larson, chairman of the county’s Commission to End Homelessness and executive director of HomeAid Orange County. “It takes city leadership to approve projects. The cities have the control of zoning, they have the control of different types of incentives, and they have a lot of control to encourage and motivate builders to develop affordable housing. We need the continuation of federal programs that encourage the developers—it could be tax credits, it could be another mechanism.”
Santa Ana’s Brizio Pizza, like other pie-making spots, touts its catering and works with community sports teams on fundraisers. Fronting busy east 17th Street near Main, it draws street and foot traffic. The block also has been adopted by some as a makeshift home.
“We used to offer a special deal for the homeless. During a certain time period, we would offer a free 7-inch pizza, with one topping, and a free drink. A number of people came by for it. But very honestly, some of them hadn’t bathed in quite a while. Some of them … well, our regular customers got kind of scared.
“I heard from a neighbor of mine that some of the (nearby) businesses were getting upset. We no longer do that special. But if someone comes in and they only have 50 cents, or a dollar, or … well, we’ll work with them.”
“I’m not a politician, OK? But what I see is embarrassing. It’s not right. Some of these people have serious mental issues. I don’t understand why all the officials, who are always talking about what they can do to help, can’t focus on that.”
Our reporter tags along on the biennial homeless tally
To be homeless is to be on the move. That’s one reason getting an accurate count of homeless people is not easy. Every two years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires counties nationwide to count their homeless populations to determine the allocation of millions of federal dollars for services. Here’s a snapshot of the Point-in-Time Count and Survey coordinated by 2-1-1 Orange County in late January.
5 a.m. Volunteer Bertha Ceja of Garden Grove, her son Ivan, a 20-year-old sophomore at Golden West College, and 20 others set out in cars for the Santa Ana Civic Center. “You see the homeless and you wish you could do something,” she says. “This is something we could do.”
5:15 a.m. At a homeless encampment on the Plaza of the Flags beside the county courthouse is a small village of tents and blue‑tarp shelters. It’s quiet and still. Volunteers set out in the darkness in pairs and threes with clipboards and free hygiene kits to distribute.
5:30 a.m. Ivan approaches a young man smoking a cigarette outside a tent. Some agree to be interviewed and are asked about their age, ethnic background, family situation, military service, substance abuse problems, and mental and physical health. “I like talking to people so it’s OK,” Ivan says.
6:20 a.m. A woman on a bench near Ross Street tells Ivan that she’s 48 and has never stayed in a shelter in five years of homelessness. She says she was in foster care as a child and experienced domestic violence as an adult. Her hygiene kit contains toothpaste, toilet paper, AA batteries, and other items. “What are you going to do with your batteries?” she asks a companion.
6:30 a.m. A Santa Ana Police Department cruiser on routine patrol rouses some in the Civic Center encampment to ensure public access to the buildings. Police make the rounds earlier on weekdays but allow an extra hour or so on Saturdays and Sundays.
7 a.m. Outside Santa Ana City Hall, Alfonso, 67, says he has been on the streets for five years. “This is my mattress,” he says, pointing to a piece of cardboard. “I’m not homeless because God assigned me here.”
9 a.m. Survey officially ends. The tally from January’s count will be released by next month. Go to 211OC.org for more information.