As state armories opened their doors this month, a new county homeless census suggests that skyrocketing apartment rents are leaving more poor people without places to live.
The study, which is the most ambitious count the Orange County Executive Office has ever attempted, found that there are 14,086 homeless people in the county. The total represents an 18% jump over a 1998 survey.
Officials said an increasing number of young families are in need of shelter, with adults holding jobs but unable to afford apartment rents that average more than $1,000 a month.
The county's study defines a homeless person as someone who either lives in a shelter, transitional living center or in a low-cost motel. The report was prepared by seeking head counts at all local shelters as well as certain motels where families live for months at a time.
While the county estimates that 40% of the homeless population are substance abusers or have mental health problems, more than half simply don't have the economic means to gain shelter, officials said.
"There is an incorrect perception of the typical homeless person. It is not a man, an older man, who is mentally ill," said Karen Roper, the county's homeless issues coordinator. "About 60% of the homeless are families. They are not bums who do not work. They can't afford housing. They need housing."
Take Evelyn Juarez, 26, and her two children, 4 and 6. The family was recently turned away at the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter in Costa Mesa. The shelter's receptionist Ruby Amezcua broke the bad news to Juarez: All the emergency beds were full for that night. The occupants are mostly working people with salaries of $10 an hour.
Juarez's voice cracked as she explained how she was evicted from her $700-a-month apartment in Anaheim two months ago and has since shuffled between her mother's home and friends'. Everyone is fed up with her and the burden of her two children, she said.
Juarez, a single mother with a high school diploma and vocational training, earns $14 an hour as a bill collector. But with car payments, insurance and day-care expenses, she can't save enough to pay $1,200, the required apartment deposit and first month's rent on a one-bedroom apartment near her son's school in Anaheim.
"You come from having everything, and one day, everything slips through your fingers. You call for help, and there is no help," said Juarez, who planned to return to a friend's house that night. She fears, however, that her family will soon run out of places to stay.
That moment has already come for Leanne Cooper and her family. They have lived off and on at a Buena Park homeless shelter and in various motels for months after losing her $625-a-month La Habra apartment.
She has searched for an apartment but found few that she can afford.
"Now it's so much harder. You have to have perfect credit and make a lot of money," Cooper said.
Sheri Barrios, executive director of the Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter, said her facility is filled with working people who can't make ends meet.
The rising rents have prompted some families to cramp into overcrowded apartments or live in small garages--anything to avoid becoming homeless. But for those who are completely out of money, the options are few.
Existing shelter beds--which total 3,247--can only serve a fraction of the homeless population. The three state armories that opened this month for the winter will provide about 300 additional beds.
A national Census Bureau study of the homeless released last week found 44% had worked at least part time within a month of entering a shelter and 39% had signs of mental illness.
Local social service providers are frustrated in their efforts to help the homeless, which they say are complicated by complex federal regulations and suspicion from neighbors about locating homeless people nearby.
Community battles over homeless shelters have occurred from La Habra to Costa Mesa--especially when they are proposed in residential neighborhoods. Concerned residents stress that while they have nothing against those in need, they fear shelters will bring traffic and crime and reduce property values.
Residents often suggest that shelters be built in industrial zones. But such commercial properties are often difficult to find and can be far more expensive than converting a house or apartment complex into a shelter.
Shelter organizers have recently come together to discuss these challenges in a series of forums. They hope to garner more federal funds to meet Orange County's increasing needs.
One major obstacle, officials said, is clashing philosophies between the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department and local homeless advocates over what types of shelters are needed. Local officials said Orange County's dearth of shelter beds is so severe that more overnight emergency facilities are needed.
These shelters provide assistance for short periods of time, and per-bed costs are much less than long-term transitional shelters.