More homeless Orange County residents died last year than any other, coroner says
As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped Orange County, homeless residents had few places to turn.
Shelters have faced coronavirus outbreaks and a lawsuit for sexual harassment and inhumane conditions. Project Roomkey, a statewide program that placed homeless Californians in hotel rooms, was called overly restrictive by advocates who said the hotels and shelters were being run like prisons.
As a result, more homeless people died in Orange County in 2020 than any other year, according to the coroner’s office.
The 330 deaths are a reminder that the pandemic has repeatedly struck the most vulnerable in the community. In 2019, just over 200 homeless people died in Orange County.
“It’s sad because there are more shelters now than before,” said Father Dennis Kriz, an advocate for homeless neighbors and pastor of a Fullerton church. “But, it’s also like some of what was built now doesn’t work as well.”
Every month on the Voice of OC, Kriz publishes the names and stories of homeless people who have died. He also used to allow a homeless encampment on his church’s grounds despite opposition from parishioners.
Kriz said Orange County and its cities haven’t done enough to keep homeless residents safe from the virus.
“It just seems that they continue to not see this as a serious issue,” Kriz said. “And it’s just a shame because, again, I really do think if they really took it seriously … they could have this thing solved.
“But instead they’re catering to maskless crazies arguing that they want their kid to go to the prom, and you got 150 extra deaths on the street due to homelessness.”
Late last month, the Voice of OC reported that 16 homeless shelters in the county have had outbreaks.
Tim Houchen, an advocate who was once homeless, said he thinks the streets are now safer for those who live there, although that may be an unpopular opinion.
Houchen said that when he was homeless, he was uncomfortable being at shelters surrounded by sick people.
“Now these congregate shelters, nobody wants to go to them,” he said. “If I was back on the streets homeless again, I wouldn’t want to go to those shelters.”
Houchen organizes a Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event annually on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, to honor homeless people who have died. The event was held virtually last month.
Houchen was recently elected to the Orange County Continuum of Care’s board of directors, which develops and implements strategies to address homelessness in the county. He also founded the nonprofit Hope 4 Restoration.
Many of the deaths on the coroner’s list are due to drug overdoses and traffic injuries. Five of the deaths are listed as being caused by COVID-19. About 90 of the individuals have causes of deaths listed as pending investigation, natural causes or left blank.
Houchen and Kriz said many of the deaths are directly and indirectly related to the pandemic.
With many public bathrooms closed, Houchen said, hygienic issues could be causing more illnesses.
“Then you have guys that are going to the bathroom too close to where they sleep, and where others sleep,” Houchen said. “And they’re not washing property between going to the bathroom and when they eat. That definitely has an effect on the homeless as far as their hygiene goes.”
Kriz said some homeless people are afraid to go to hospitals due to possible exposure to the virus. Now, as hospitals are being inundated by COVID-19 patients, people may be even less inclined to seek help for health issues, and some hospitals may not have room.
Houchen said outreach efforts and other services that were available to homeless residents before the pandemic have been reduced.
Because opioids, particularly fentanyl, are responsible for many overdoses among homeless people in Orange County, Houchen believes the lack of available outreach and resources contributed to the high number of deaths.
“A lot of services and a lot of the resources that they had before were just completely wiped out single-handedly by COVID,” Houchen said. “I know that we have a really big problem nationwide, not just among homeless people, with opioids, particularly fentanyl. And I think a lot of these deaths probably are resulting from that.”
Houchen and Kriz believe the county’s official tally of 330 homeless deaths last year is an undercount.
In past years, Houchen added names he had independently verified to the coroner’s list of homeless people who died. In 2020, he didn’t add any because the pandemic prevented him from getting out on foot to verify other deaths.
“It’s an undercount almost certainly,” Kriz said. “But it’s the only count we have.”
Advocates have been concerned about a rise in homeless deaths since the early months of the pandemic.
Kriz and other activists held car rallies to call on Orange County to do more for its homeless residents.
The county’s current plan includes transitioning from Project Roomkey, which has largely ended, to Project Homekey, another state initiative that entails purchasing and rehabilitating hotels, motels, vacant apartments and other buildings to house people experiencing homelessness.
The county has purchased a hotel and a motel so far. The former Stanton Inn & Suites began operating as interim housing in late November. The second site, the former Tahiti Motel, is being rehabilitated and is expected to begin operating as an interim site in mid-February.
Santa Ana, the largest city in Orange County, says it is unfairly burdened with homeless people from outside the city.
Jason Austin, director of the county’s Office of Care Coordination, said homeless individuals in the Project Roomkey program were transferred to next-step housing options through the county’s Project Toolbelt program, which includes rooms for rent, board and care homes, sober living homes, room and boards, permanent housing, shelters and motels.
The current operations of Project Roomkey are limited to providing isolation to homeless people who have tested positive for the coronavirus or show symptoms of COVID-19, Austin said.
As the pandemic continues into the new year, Houchen said one of the issues he plans to take on in 2021 is the lack of information the coroner’s office provides when a homeless person dies. He said he’s followed up on cases that were pending for more than a year without updates.
“The truth is, we don’t get the data that we really need from our coroner so that we can make important determinations, so we can make adjustments to how we provide services and resources to the homeless community,” Houchen said.
Below are the names of homeless people who died in Orange County in 2020, according to a list provided by the coroner’s office. The list includes four stillborn babies and one unidentified man.
Homeless people who died in Orange County in 2020:
Donny Van Why
Cristobal Navarro Munoz
Joseph Ruelas, jr.
Arturo Hernandez Jimenez
Theodore Contreras, jr.
Francisco Torivio Penaloza
Felipe Moreno Jimenez
Infant male (Gomez)
Cesar De la Rosa Garduno
Jorge Cervantes Garcia
Infant male (Goin)
William Bewley III
Jose De los Santos
Daniel Mayhew jr.
Leonard Romero jr.
Infant male (Tostado)
John Doe #187
Gerardo Ruiz Chavez
Robert Johnson Jr.
Ramon Lopez jr
J. Refugio Muniz
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.