How are Orange County cities responding to new homeless count data?

How are Orange County cities responding to new homeless count data?

Artist Tom Clark paints a mural in the family quarters at an interim homeless shelter in Anaheim on Monday, December 17, 2018. In recent months, hundreds of beds have opened at shelters in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Tustin and Costa Mesa offering an array of services to help people get off the streets. (Register file photo)

By ALICIA ROBINSON | arobinson@scng.com | The Orange County Register

Leaders of some Orange County cities and nonprofits are embracing new data showing details about who’s homeless in Orange County, where they stay and what issues they face, saying the information will point the way toward better solutions to a regional homelessness crisis.

But others are warily eyeing the preliminary results of January’s point-in-time homeless count, released by the county on Wednesday, April 24, questioning their accuracy and the effectiveness of emergency shelters in getting people off the street in the long term.

The data showed a total of 6,860 homeless people in Orange County, with 3,961 of them not using area shelters.

Reactions to the new numbers continue a debate that’s raged in Orange County since before the county began clearing the Santa Ana River Trail encampment early last year. While most agree more must be done, the new information highlights differences of opinion on next steps.

The early homeless count data (a full report is due in June) breaks out the homeless population by city, and it’s likely no surprise that Anaheim and Santa Ana had the largest totals.

Anaheim had 694 unsheltered people as of the January count, but officials say that number has likely dropped because more than 300 new shelter beds have since opened.

“We’re pleased with the numbers and we think that’s really a testament to the kind of resources and attention we’ve been dedicating to homelessness,” city spokeswoman Lauren Gold said.

Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley noted that homeless people with shelter tallied in January – just six – has now reached 46 in her city with a 50-bed emergency shelter that debuted this month.

Accurate numbers?

The federally mandated point-in-time count tallies people without a fixed address and divides them by whether they’ve got a place to stay or not.

Taken together, the number of people on the streets in the northern and central parts of the county are a little more than half those areas’ total homeless – 57.7 percent for the north area and 54.8 percent for the central area. But while the number of homeless in South County cities is smaller overall, more of them – 70.5 percent – report being unsheltered.

Figures for Dana Point showed 32 homeless and none with shelter, which Mayor Joe Muller disputes.

The city has a full-time homeless outreach worker and about 35 units of temporary or permanent housing with support services, he said – there’s just no emergency shelter.

And figuring out where to put one in the county’s southern cities will likely be a struggle, he said.

“I know it’s kind of an easy way out, but most people know that it’s not going to end up right on the coast. It’s too cost-prohibitive,” Muller said. “It’s not going to be an easy conversation.”

Though the county considers the January data more accurate than past counts, Irvine Mayor Christina Shea and San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott said the numbers of unsheltered homeless for their cities – 127 and 62, respectively – are higher than what city staff in the field report seeing.

“I think if they want us to provide shelter, we need to understand where they are locating the homeless communities,” Shea said.

Maryott also said he believes putting people in temporary shelters won’t be successful unless two big factors in homelessness, mental health and addiction issues, are addressed.

‘Information is power’

The survey noted nearly 33 percent of unsheltered homeless said they struggle with substance use, and more than 26 percent said they deal with mental health issues.

That will help officials offer services that meet real needs, Anaheim’s Gold said, adding, “Especially in addressing homelessness, information is power.”

Orange County United Way CEO Sue Parks said knowing there are 212 military veterans living on the streets, for example, will help people understand the size of the issue and win support to solve it.

But others say the data highlights a gap in assistance for homeless that the county and cities have hardly even begun to address.

Housing costs continue to rise and the solutions, including vouchers to help people pay rent and new affordable places to live, are in very short supply, said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst for the ACLU of Southern California.

“We can build all the shelters we want and call them bridge shelters, but they’re not a bridge to housing if the housing doesn’t exist,” she said.

The newly created Orange County Housing Finance Trust, which will help fund housing projects, is a positive step, Garrow said. But city and county governments also need to support those projects to make them a reality, she said.

“We know the solution. We know that it’s actually cost-effective,” she said. “The real barrier is political will.”

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