A new census of Orange County’s homeless population found nearly 7,000 people living in shelters or on the streets countywide — a significant uptick from the last such count in 2017 as the county has struggled to deal with the issue.
The numbers come a year after Orange County cleared a large stretch of the Santa Ana River area of numerous homeless encampments. Since then, officials are battling over where to place more homeless facilities.
Some cities saw significant increases in the number of homeless.
The number of unsheltered people recorded in Costa Mesa, for instance, went from 103 in 2017 to 187 this year. In Huntington Beach, the unsheltered population more than doubled, from 119 to 289.
A county official, however, said the increase could at least partly be attributed to new methodologies and technology used to count the homeless this time around, providing a more comprehensive and detailed overview than in previous years.
Overall, January’s Orange County Point in Time count documented 6,860 homeless people.
Of those, 2,899 were staying in some kind of shelter, while 3,961 were unsheltered, according to the county.
By comparison, 4,792 homeless people were tallied during the 2017 Point in Time count, including 2,584 who were unsheltered.
The Point in Time count is a federally required biennial census of the homeless that collects demographic data and other information so agencies can update their practices and resources. The tally also helps determine how much funding Orange County will receive to address homelessness issues.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairwoman Michelle Steel — whose 2nd District includes Costa Mesa, part of Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach — said the survey “provides a more accurate snapshot of where homeless individuals are in the county.”
During this year’s count, volunteers used a smartphone app to log survey responses and the locations where they met particular people. That not only provided additional information about where homeless people were but also their specific situations, said Susan Price, the county’s director of care coordination.
“We have a lot better accuracy in terms of the data,” she said. “When you get the opportunity to talk to the population directly, you’re talking to the homeless person about their issues, things they’re struggling with, what their barriers are, what their needs are.”
Individual cities also saw their homeless figures rise compared with the 2017 count.
Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach have taken steps to open homeless shelters in recent months. As part of an agreement to settle a federal lawsuit filed in January 2018 on behalf of homeless people cleared from an encampment along the Santa Ana River, Costa Mesa opened a 50-bed “bridge shelter” at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene this month.
An additional 12 beds that will be available to people suffering a mental health crisis are being provided through a partnership with College Hospital Costa Mesa, an acute care facility at 301 Victoria St.
Last week, the Huntington Beach City Council approved the purchase of an 11,200-square-foot warehouse to create a 75- to 90-bed shelter at 15311 Pipeline Lane.
In announcing their shelter plans, officials in both cities cited direction from U.S. District Judge David Carter, who is presiding over homelessness-related legal actions in Orange County. He has called for cities to develop enough transitional and emergency beds to serve 60% of the unsheltered population tallied during the 2017 count.
In Costa Mesa, that meant providing 62 beds. However, applying the same standard using the 2019 count would raise the target to 112.
Huntington Beach would need 71 beds based on the 2017 results but 173 based on this year’s.
It’s unclear how, or if, the more recent figures will affect Costa Mesa’s shelter plans. As city spokesman Tony Dodero pointed out, “We already have a finalized settlement agreement.”
Mayor Katrina Foley said, “I just hope that other cities will see that these numbers reflect that we have a long ways to go and keep working on this issue and start opening shelters throughout Orange County.”
Also uncertain is how Huntington Beach will proceed and whether its partnership with Westminster, the county and nonprofit American Family Housing to expand two shelters in unincorporated Midway City may count in its favor.
Huntington Beach spokeswoman Julie Toledo said in an email Wednesday that officials are “still looking over the numbers and the report at this time.”
Laguna Beach was one of a handful of cities where the number of observed sheltered people, 76, outnumbered its unsheltered total, 71. The 2017 count documented a total of 88 homeless people in Laguna Beach, including 78 who were sheltered.
The number of Laguna’s sheltered people in both counts nearly matches how many beds are available at the Friendship Shelter’s two locations in the city — on South Coast Highway and at the Alternative Sleeping Location on Laguna Canyon Road.
Laguna Beach Mayor Bob Whalen said the city is proud of the sheltering services it offers but hopes other cities “step up and shoulder their share of the solution.”
Newport Beach saw its recorded homeless population rise from 39 in 2017 to 64 this year. In both cases, all those people were unsheltered.
“I think it is a bit difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison of our homeless neighbors between the 2017 and 2019 counts,” said Newport Beach Assistant City Manager Carol Jacobs. “The 2017 process used an extrapolation method that applied the unsheltered total to each city simply by population. The 2019 count uses a different methodology using mapping and GIS [geographic information system] coordinates. My opinion is that the 2019 count is a bit more precise. We will really be able to compare apples to apples with the 2021 count.”