Orange County sees 28% increase in homelessness since 2022

County officials were encouraged that the number is just 7% higher than the previous pre-pandemic count in 2019.

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Thursday, May 9, 2024
Orange County sees 28% increase in homelessness since 2022
Orange County saw a 28% increase in homeless individuals compared with the last count two years ago, but county officials were encouraged that the number is just 7% higher than the previous pre- pandemic count in 2019.

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CNS) -- Orange County saw a 28% increase in homeless individuals compared with the last count two years ago, but county officials were encouraged that the number is just 7% higher than the previous pre-pandemic count in 2019, according to a report issued Wednesday.

County officials found the five-year trend encouraging and a validation of efforts to address the problem since the county found itself in federal court over a plan to clear out an encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed in January 2018.

The extended gap between the previous two counts was due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This year's Point In Time count tallied 7,322 homeless individuals in the county.

Doug Becht, director of the county's Office of Care Coordination, pointed out that officials have been using the same methodology approved by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, so the five-year trend provides a more helpful picture than a year-over-year comparison.

"Obviously, a 28% increase is a significant increase from 2022," Becht told City News Service.

But he said the five-year trend compares favorably to neighboring counties and the state of California, which has seen a 20% increase over that span.

"And when we compared our surrounding counties, San Diego, L.A., San Bernardino and Riverside, we're seeing their trend is 29%," Becht said.

"I would find the increase from 2022 to be encouraging in the sense that that's the worst possible take from this Point in Time report," Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do told CNS. "To have only that increase in light of all of the headwinds with COVID, with the economy and especially in relation to other large counties, I think we are ahead of our peers."

Do added that the five-year comparison given how COVID-19 affected the economy "speaks to our county's foresight in crafting the continuum of care, and I'm referring specifically to Bridges in Anaheim, the courtyard in Santa Ana and subsequently the Yale Street site in Santa Ana."

Along with Orange County CEO Frank Kim, Do led efforts in federal court regarding the riverbed homeless encampment to do more than just build temporary shelters. A landmark settlement led to the development of regional service areas in north, central and south county in which local cities agreed to build shelters designed to guide transients toward permanent housing. The county also developed more outreach to the homeless and provided more mental health services.

"Our continuum of care created that capacity that allows our county to absorb all of the adverse forces in society that pushed the number of homeless up and to maintain it as a pretty stable level over five years," Do said. "Seven percent is very low ... and we see other counties not coming anywhere close to what we've achieved and I'm very proud of that fact."

Supervisor Katrina Foley, who led similar reform efforts when she was mayor of Costa Mesa, said that while lobbying in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, she intended to push HUD and the county congressional delegation for more affordable housing grants to help move people in transitional centers into permanent housing so those still on the streets will have a bed.

"The five-year lookback is an appropriate measure given that in between the five years we've had a pandemic and lot of factors that wouldn't be realistic data in that cycle," Foley said. "The important information for my office and what I'll be drilling down on is we have a bottleneck in our system.

"We need to work with more urgency to build more projects," she added. "We still have 1,811 units to build out our system that we identified in 2022. I suspect those numbers will double, but regardless we don't have enough permanent housing to keep the flow going. Seventy percent of the people in our shelters are ready to go into permanent housing and there isn't a unit for them to move into."

Kim said it will be key for the county to work collaboratively not only with its cities, but also with neighboring counties.

"We succeed and fail together," he said. "The homeless individuals we know can move from city to city and county to county, so it's important we work together even outside of Orange County. That regional approach is very important. And I think that in the past we've not had as strong a collaboration ... That's something we'll have to look at."

Kim said the counts have become more accurate because the county has been using the same method for five years and with a database there's less risk of double counting or missing people. Also, the database has shown officials where the homeless are most likely to congregate.

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Officials say part of the reason for the increase in homelessness could be rising inflation, which has prompted federal officials to hike interest rates. That increases rents and mortgages, experts say.

Officials are hoping that if inflation can meet the 2% target sometime this year, interest rates will be cut and that will lower housing costs. Inflation increased after the federal government stimulated the economy as it struggled to get through the pandemic.

Another factor could be an eclipse in the $300 million in rental assistance funding given out by the county and state to prevent residents from eviction during the pandemic. The moratorium on evictions ended on May 31, 2022.

Since 2019, 61 emergency shelters were established in Orange County to serve about 3,000 people, an increase of 730 beds. Since 2018, 1,364 affordable and supporting housing units have been built.

From 2022 to this year, the county added 681 shelter beds for a total of 3,920. The county built 859 units since January 2022.

Foley said in her meetings with developers she's identified "three key areas preventing the expediting of affordable housing." Interest rates on construction loans is one issue, but the costs for constructional materials such as lumber and steel are "particularly, extraordinarily expensive," Foley said.

The county must also focus on reducing bureaucratic costs related to building, she said.

"We have to figure out a way to reduce the time and expedite the permit process," she said.

Helping developers procure construction materials through partnerships with government that can get discounts from high-volume orders might help, she said.

"I'm working on a procurement policy where maybe we can piggyback on federal procurement contracts or county or state contracts," she said.

The county has made great strides getting homeless families off the streets, but more work needs to be done helping veterans, Foley added.

Of the 7,322 homeless individuals counted, 3,227 are in the northern part of the county, 3,454 are in the central part of the county and 641 were in south county.

Veterans accounted for 328 people in the count, and 308 were ages 18 to 24. The number of homeless seniors 62 and older amounted to 869.