Homelessness In North Orange County Is Significantly Higher Than Last Official Estimate

An encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed in Orange County in April 2017. After it was cleared, many living there dispersed to other parts of the county. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

As Orange County squabbles over how to address homelessness, a previously unreleased count found the number of people living on the streets of north Orange County is nearly 60 percent higher than the last official estimate in 2017. Anaheim, the largest city in north Orange County, has twice the homeless population estimated in that 2017 count.

The intensive census of homeless people in 13 cities was carried out with public funds by local law enforcement officers, homeless outreach workers and volunteers over a three-week period during March and April of 2018. A homeless outreach group called City Net organized the effort.

But the results were never released to the public, despite requests from journalists and advocates for the homeless. KPCC/LAist obtained the survey data through a public records act request and from a source involved with the latest count.

The tally of Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Cypress, Fullerton, La Habra, La Palma, Los Alamitos, Orange, Placentia, Stanton, Villa Park and Yorba Linda found 1,837 people experiencing homelessness. Eighty percent of them —1,474 people — are unsheltered. That's a higher percentage of homeless adults living on the streets than in neighboring Los Angeles, where 75 percent of the homeless population is unsheltered. During the count, homeless individuals were also asked to take a voluntary survey.

The survey revealed:

  • More than three-quarters of people surveyed said they had been homeless for more than a year; one-quarter had been homeless for at least six years.
  • Men made up about 70 percent of the unsheltered homeless population.
  • At least 115 homeless people counted were veterans; 97 of them lived on the streets.
  • Around 60 percent of respondents said their last permanent address was in a north Orange County city; another 15 percent said their last permanent address was elsewhere in Orange County.

Experts and public officials involved in the census cautioned that the size and nature of the homeless population has likely changed in the year since the data was collected. Still, the data provides a more recent and much more detailed snapshot of the area's homeless population than previously known.

Officials have had the data for months but repeatedly declined to release it until KPCC/LAist filed a public records act request in January. The delay raises questions at a time when Orange County is embroiled in a major, county-wide legal battle over the lack of shelter space and if, where and how new shelters should be built.

"The reason for not releasing the data is probably because it's pretty damning," said Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers representing homeless plaintiffs and advocacy groups in several class action lawsuits over the lack of shelters in Orange County. "If it were favorable to them, they probably would've released it."

An accurate count is a key measure for the fate of the county's homeless residents. Officials and nonprofits use the numbers to determine how many shelter beds and other services are needed. They also use the numbers to apply for funding to address homelessness.

Sobel was unaware of the new census data until KPCC/LAist asked her to comment on it. She said the data would have been useful in settlement talks over the number of additional beds needed.

Public officials involved in the census cited a variety of reasons for not releasing the data.

"I think we were still struggling with, 'How do we address the problem? How do we use the data?'" Fullerton City Manager Ken Domer said.

Placentia Police Chief Darin Lenyi said the data wasn't released because of the litigation over homeless shelters.

"We wanted the data to be used like it was intended to be used and not for legal reasons," he said.

He and other north Orange County officials said cities would use the data to better target services for the homeless.

Why Do The Numbers Matter?

Settlement talks in a lawsuit filed last year by Sobel and her colleagues have hinged, in part, on calculations of how many new shelter beds would be needed to adequately address demand.

KPCC/LAist tallied approximately 725 shelter beds in north OC based on information provided by shelter administrators in this month. An additional 326 beds have been added in Anaheim in recent months following that city's legal settlement.

That leaves only about one bed for every two people in need of shelter, using the north OC homeless census data as a guide.

Some additional beds may be available in private, religious-based shelters and other institutions, said Brad Fieldhouse, executive director of City Net. Getting an accurate count of shelter beds in Orange County is challenging because of the patchwork of public and private administrators.

Public officials involved with the latest homeless census said they did share the data with U.S. District Court Judge David Carter, who oversees the lawsuits over shelter space. Sobel, however, said the court has determined the number of shelter beds needed largely based on the older census data.

That tally, carried out during one morning in January 2017, is a federally-mandated count known as Point-In-Time. It extrapolates the estimated number of homeless individuals in each city. It's widely considered to be an undercount of the actual homeless population, which appears to be borne out by the higher numbers uncovered in the recent north OC census.

Sobel said cities will likely have trouble keeping up with demand if they rely on this older, less precise data to plan for emergency shelter and housing needs.

"If you're doing all your calculations based on these inaccurate numbers, and they are grossly inaccurate, you're not getting ahead of the problem," Sobel said.

Soon, yet another data set will be added to the mix. A new Point-In-Time count was carried out in January 2019 but the resulting data isn't expected to be released until April.

Not having enough shelter beds to meet demand has another consequence for cities: Homeless people can't be penalized for sleeping or trespassing on public land if they don't have another place to stay, making encampments more likely to stay put.

This standard was recently upheld by a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It is also one of the legal arguments used in the lawsuits filed by Sobel and her colleagues.

Sobel also sued south Orange County cities in late February, hoping to force them to open more shelter space.

People pack their belongings at a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed on Feb. 20, 2018. (Frederic J. Brown /AFP/Getty Images)

Dispersed From The Riverbed

Homeless advocates filed last year's lawsuit over the lack of shelters following the announcement of plans to clear out a large encampment that had grown up along the Santa Ana riverbed. Law enforcement did clear the encampment — where up to 1,500 people are thought to have lived — last February.

At the time, the county housed around 700 of the evictees in motels for a month and made efforts to move many into more permanent housing. Still, hundreds were thought to have returned to the streets.

This north county survey was carried out just a few months after the riverbed clearing and counted 321 people who said they had been displaced from that encampment. That's one out of every four people surveyed.

Shelters In the Works

Orange County has, in recent months, made major strides in adding needed shelter space. Local officials and homelessness experts say that's largely thanks to pressure from Judge Carter.

Officials are moving forward with plans for shelters in Buena Park and Placentia, with 100 beds each. Tustin and Costa Mesa are also working to open shelters.

A permanent, 600-bed shelter is expected to open in Anaheim in 2021, which would replace two smaller shelters opened in recent months as a part of the city's legal settlement in the case overseen by Carter. Santa Ana also opened an interim, 200-bed shelter in November 2018, and there are plans to open another, 600-bed shelter in Santa Ana in the coming years.

Who Are North Orange County's Homeless?

City Net, the homeless outreach group that carried out the survey did so on behalf of the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force.

Buena Park Police Chief Corey Sianez, who also heads the task force, said law enforcement officers spent around 800 hours, and volunteers added another 800 hours, searching alleys, gullies, parks and shelters to tally and survey people experiencing homelessness.

Sianez said he was surprised by the total number of homeless individuals living in the area and the lengthy time that many had been on the streets. "The problem was bigger than we thought it was," he said.

White, Black Homeless Disproportionate To Overall Population

The survey found higher percentages of both white and black homeless people compared to the demographics of the cities surveyed. Nearly half the homeless population is white, while whites make up about 32.4 percent of the overall north county population, according to the 2017 American Community Survey.

People identifying as African-American or black were even more overrepresented in the count, making up 9 percent of those surveyed, even though they make up just 2.3 percent of the area's population. A recent study that examined the disproportionate number of black people among L.A.'s homeless concluded that long-standing institutional racism was largely to blame.

[Story: A Groundbreaking Report Goes Deep On Black Homelessness In Los Angeles]

Latinos and Asians, on the other hand, made up a disproportionately small percentage of the homeless population surveyed compared to their overall numbers.

Most Homeless Are Older, Single Adults

Families — adults with children — made up a little under 10 percent of the homeless population surveyed in north OC. But more than 25 percent of homeless shelter beds are reserved for families, according to KPCC/LAist calculations. In recent public discussions over proposed shelters and housing for people experiencing homelessness, OC residents have expressed more reception to sheltering families than adult individuals or couples.

Sianez, the Buena Park police chief, says most people find families more sympathetic.

"I think it's a little more acceptable to see a male homeless person," he said, "than it is a couple of kids and a mother on the street."

The majority of homeless individuals surveyed are middle-aged or older. Sixty-four percent of homeless adults in shelters are at least 50-years-old or older.

In family shelters, however, most adults are under 40, women, and Latina.

Most Homeless Veterans Are Unsheltered

Only one in five homeless veterans in north OC is sheltered, despite the fact that there are generally more resources available for homeless vets than for their counterparts without military service. Brad Fieldhouse, executive director of City Net, said that thanks to the census, cities now have the names of those homeless veterans. He said those names can be used to better connect them with available help.

Disabled And On The Streets

Nearly half of those surveyed for the census reported having a permanent disability. That's more than three times higher than the estimated disability rate nationwide, which is 12.8 percent.

More than 40 percent of those surveyed reported having a mental illness, and 37 percent said they struggled with addiction. The final census report notes that these figures are based on self-reported answers, not medical diagnoses, and that "addiction" was not defined for survey respondents.

More than half of homeless women said they were victims of domestic violence.

Public Benefits Left On Table

Less than half of sheltered and unsheltered adults reported receiving benefits under CalFresh, the state's food supplement program for low-income individuals, and most unsheltered adults said they did not have health insurance, even though most probably qualify for CalFresh and Medi-Cal, the public health insurance program.

Sianez said the information helped identify a need to improve enrollment services for public benefits, especially for people living on the streets.

Most sheltered adults and most families said they had insurance.

300 People Housed Since Survey; Others Newly Homeless

Public officials and homeless experts involved in the latest census are proud of the work. Sianez and Fieldhouse emphasized that everyone surveyed was entered into a database that has been shared among all cities in north OC, and into the county's homeless Continuum of Care database, which tracks the provision of services.

They said the new data system will allow homeless outreach workers to better respond to people's individual needs and track their progress in getting housed, even if they move to another city in Orange County.

Police officers in Anaheim and La Habra are also piloting use of a mobile app, called Outreach Grid, that allows them to access information about a homeless person who has had previous contact with police or outreach workers. Buena Park also plans to start using the app.

Sianez said that in the 11 months since the census was conducted, 300 people on that list have been housed. That's 20 percent of the population tallied in the census. Sianez said the goal is to get 60 percent of unsheltered homeless people off the streets by the end of the year.

The work is far from done. Just in the time since that survey was taken, Sianez said 300 to 400 people have become newly homeless in north Orange County. "It's an evolving task," he said.

Read the final report: