Officials are proceeding with a new study of the County’s homeless population as a recent report reveals a dramatic rise in the number of homeless people dying in Orange County over the past ten years. Some homeless rights activists, including attorney Brooke Weitzman, ponder the necessity of this poll.
“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 frequently advocates for and represents homeless persons in legal proceedings, claimed that authorities needed to make it simpler for people to receive assistance.
“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.
County spokesperson Molly Nicholsen stated in an email on February 8 that the County keeps funding supportive services for the homeless and the growth of affordable homes.
She responded to Weitzman’s statement by writing, “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.”
In the meantime, the death rate for those who live on the streets is rising. The County’s first homeless death review committee, established by Sheriff Don Barnes in 2022 and run by the Sheriff Department’s coroner division, released its first report on homeless people who died on Monday using data from 2021.
According to the statistics, drug-related deaths have been the leading cause of mortality among homeless individuals over the past ten years, from 103 in 2012 to 395 in 2021. One hundred forty-four of the fatalities involved the drug fentanyl.
Father Dennis Kriz of St. Philip Benizi’s Church in Fullerton has consistently called attention to this issue. Kriz lists the names of those who have passed away on the streets each month in Voice of OC’s community opinion selection, with a notable increase in recent years.
The review committee urges lawmakers to pass legislation permitting complete data sharing among committee members rather than relying on compiled data. For example, there are no policy suggestions for organizing services or placing people in shelters or houses.
The committee urged the Sheriff’s office and other county departments to work to obtain additional Narcan, which can be used to reverse an overdose, and suggested that other county departments keep improving possibilities for drug and alcohol misuse treatment.
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Also, they demanded that sentences be altered so offenders must undergo drug rehabilitation. Officials in Orange County already carry out the Point in Time Count, a study of the homeless that federal authorities require.
According to the County’s 2022 point-in-time count, there were 5,718 homeless people in OC in 2017—more than 3,000 unsheltered.
According to Nicholsen, the Commission to End Homelessness will be responsible for this year’s survey, which aims to elicit information beyond that provided by a 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.”
Weitzman noted in an email dated February 8 that the County also conducts studies on the homeless population, such as the Homeless Provider Forum Survey and a District 2 homeless survey in 2021.
She wants to know what has changed since the surveys’ findings and what actions the County has made to encourage the creation of affordable and supportive homes and all-encompassing supportive services for persons who are homeless.
“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?”
Nonetheless, during their meeting on February 7, county supervisors decided unanimously to proceed 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.
At the meeting, Doug Brecht, Director of the Office of Care Coordination, informed the managers that they planned 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 agreed that there is room for improvement in the county system to assist the homeless. People are anticipated to receive a $10 gift card as a reward for responding to the survey.
At the meeting, supervisor Katrina Foley demanded a bigger reward.
“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.”
Don Wagner, the supervisors’ chairman, stated that the gift cards were not intended to provide support but to encourage participants to seek medical attention.
“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.
The County has recently provided homeless people with another form of support. Thanks to the County’s and Fullerton officials’ collaboration, a temporary cold-weather shelter sans walk-ins was opened earlier this year.
The survey for 2023 is anticipated to be done in the spring across the entirety of Orange County, with data expected to be gathered in the summer and given to the commission in the fall, according to Nicholsen.
“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.”
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