The number of homeless people in Orange County continues to grow, with too little done to help. We as a county must do better.
A report by the Homeless Issues Task Force, released last month, estimated that 12,000 people are homeless in the county. That represents a 20% increase over the estimated number just two years ago. Worse, the number of homeless children is thought to be anywhere from 3,600 to 6,000. The task force's executive director, Tim Shaw, was right in saying that platitudes about homeless being lazy and needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps do not apply very well to 5-year-olds.
But then, a number of myths about the homeless are incorrect. The task force report found that the typical homeless person was a 30-year-old white male who had lived in Orange County for more than 10 years and had a high school or college education. So much for the claim that people are coming from out of state or out of county and becoming homeless. The report also said that there were homeless people in just about every community, from Newport Beach to Buena Park.
Task force members said the report was the most comprehensive yet on the Orange County homeless and was based on responses from 2,193 people interviewed at welfare offices, shelters and food kitchens. Most were seeking both work and affordable housing. Both are tough to find during the recession. About half said job losses were the main reason they were on the streets. That reflects the harsh reality that despite supposed "safety nets," too many are only a paycheck or two away from life on the streets. A common refrain of the homeless man or woman, formerly employed, formerly middle class, is: "I didn't think it could happen to me."
When asked what kind of help could get them off the streets, 60% of those surveyed cited affordable housing; about the same percentage pointed to help with the first month's rent. That's no surprise, given a study by the same Homeless Issues Task Force nearly one year ago. That study looked at 1990 census figures, which showed that one of every five households in the county earned less than $23,000. A family earning that could expect to afford to spend up to $575 a month for housing, according to guidelines on the percentage of income that should be spent on shelter. Unfortunately, the average monthly rent was about $670 for a one-bedroom apartment and $980 for a three-bedroom apartment.
There have been glimmers of hope this year, with the conversion of a Costa Mesa motel into the county's first single-room-occupancy project, and the construction of affordable apartment units in Irvine. But more low-income housing is needed.
Santa Ana, for instance, needs to figure out how to help its homeless rather than hounding them with as many laws as it can find, no matter how ancient. Last month a Superior Court judge told the city not to use a law dating to the late 1800s to prosecute homeless people sleeping outdoors in the Civic Center area. The law was originally intended to stop squatters from taking land in the Old West days. Santa Ana's anti-camping ordinance, also aimed at the homeless, is being reviewed by an appellate court.
Santa Ana long has had a problem with the homeless around the Civic Center. Two years ago a judge ordered the city to pay $400,000 to homeless people after a series of misguided police sweeps. That city's lack of a coherent long-term plan is only one example of a general countywide problem--a lack of adequate provisions for dealing with the problems of the homeless.