A shortage of affordable housing and disappearing jobs combined to boost Orange County's homeless population 17% in the past year, according to county records.
In a study released last week, 23,132 homeless people were counted in a March survey of shelters and agencies that assist the needy, up from 19,741 a year earlier.
"It's a trend that's comparable with other regions of the country," said Karen Roper, the county's homeless prevention coordinator. "We are not alone. The numbers keep going up nationwide."
Homelessness in Orange County has risen steadily since 1998. Some of the growth is due to the county's booming population, Roper said, but the biggest factor fueling the increase is escalating housing costs.
In the past year, higher housing prices combined with higher unemployment to further squeeze the working poor, especially families, said county officials and social workers. About 70% of the county's homeless population is made up of families with children.
Orange County's unemployment rate reached 4.1% in July, up from 3.4% a year earlier. Meanwhile, the percentage of those able to buy a median-priced home slid to 22% in June, down from 29% a year earlier, according to a study by the California Assn. Of Realtors.
"It's just gotten worse and worse," said Sheri Barrios, executive director of the Orange Coast Interfaith emergency shelter in Costa Mesa.
"Rents in Orange County have skyrocketed and wages haven't kept up," she said. "You can have two people in jobs making $8 an hour and they can't afford housing for their children."
The shelter, which takes telephone reservations each day beginning at 9 a.m. for its 65 spaces, is full nearly every day.
"Many days, we are full by 10 minutes after 9," Barrios said.
About $30 million in public and private money will be spent this year in the county on programs, services and housing for the homeless.
But Orange County's 2,887 shelter beds aren't nearly enough to meet short-term emergency needs, county officials said. Last year, more than 13,000 people were turned away from county shelters because they were full.
Among the most acute shortages is shelter for families.
Orange Coast Interfaith is one of two facilities in the county with emergency shelter for poor families. The Salvation Army's Hospitality House in Santa Ana is the other. In July, 90 families, including 270 children, stayed there; 450 people were turned away.
"It used to be at the first of the month, when people got their assistance checks, we'd have empty beds; people would splurge and stay in a motel for a few days," said Beverly Freeman, director of social services for the Salvation Army in Orange County. "That's not happening anymore."
The Salvation Army has budgeted $1.5 million to build or renovate a property for a 50-bed family shelter.
The organization has asked Orange city officials to help it identify an industrial location where a shelter wouldn't run into resistance from homeowners. South County is another area being examined.
"South County is thought of as being the more affluent part of the community, and it is," said Lee Lescano, the Salvation Army's county coordinator, who hopes to begin construction on the shelter within a year. "But there are pockets in San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, even Laguna Beach, where there are homeless, high poverty and a need."
The county based its numbers on a complex formulation of head counts and surveys of homeless shelters. The homeless survey is required to qualify for federal housing funds.
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A shortage of affordable housing has fueled an increase in homelessness, according to Orange County officials. Homeless population, by fiscal year:
1998 11,946 1999 14,086 2000 18,603 2001 19,741 2002 23,132
Source: Orange County