O.C. Homeless Count Up 6%

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In an annual grant application that has come to underscore Orange County's efforts to help the homeless, officials Thursday asked the federal government for $11.9 million in program funding.

The request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, part of HUD's annual budget process, comes as the county releases its most recent estimate of its homeless population.

In 2001, the number of homeless is 19,740, up about 6% from 18,603 in 2000. Officials make the estimate by surveying shelters and agencies that help the homeless, said Karen Roper, the county's homeless prevention coordinator. Families with children account for about 14,000 of the homeless, she said.

Sixty-five percent of the county's homeless have jobs, leading Roper and others to blame a lack of affordable housing for the continued increase in the homeless population. Domestic violence, substance abuse and mental illness can also play a role, she said.

"What we can see most is that the homeless in Orange County are the working poor who cannot afford to live here," Roper said. "They are working at retail stores, at amusement parks, in child care. Until we get more housing, we are still going to have a problem."

Mary Ellen Hadley, executive director at Infolink, a nonprofit referral phone service for health and human services, said working single parents make up 75% of the calls to her agency.

"Typically, it's the loss of the job. They stay in their place until the very last minute, waiting for the ax to fall," Hadley said. "They will call us on the day they are being evicted. It's not uncommon for someone to call and say, 'We need to be out at noon.' "

The county's application to HUD includes requests for rental assistance for the homeless, temporary shelter and an increased number of shelter beds. The county currently has 2,197 beds for the homeless.

The county often gets about half the money it asks for, Roper said. HUD's funding decision is released in December.

County officials believe they have made great strides in applying for funds and in counting the homeless. In 1997, Orange County did not receive any grant money because HUD concluded there was no coordinated effort to help the homeless, Roper said.

"We have made mega improvements since then," Hadley said.

Shelter workers have been brought together to learn what each agency provides and meetings are conducted several times a year to discuss needs.

"I think the effort the county is making is far superior to what existed five years ago," said Margie Wakeham, executive director of Families Forward in Irvine, which provides transitional housing and helps families in crisis.

But, she said, "The price of housing in our area is so high and the number of shelters is so low that we really need the funding to help us tackle this problem."

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