Activists concerned over rise in Orange County homeless deaths
Homelessness advocates are concerned about the increase of homeless deaths since the pandemic took hold of Orange County.
According to data from the coroner’s office, 146 homeless people died between April and August. During the same period last year, there were 82 deaths among the homeless.
The Rev. Dennis Kriz believes the rising deaths could be due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The coroner’s data doesn’t list a cause of death if it’s from natural causes. More than 90 of the causes are left blank in the coroner’s data.
Kriz has been documenting the deaths of the homeless monthly for the Voice of OC.
The pastor is a vocal advocate for the homeless in Orange County. He supported dozens of homeless people by allowing an encampment on his church’s grounds. Now he works with Housing is a Human Right OC.
“Any one death is one too many and the Health Care Agency, in collaboration with our community partners, continues to work on solutions focused on linking individuals experiencing homelessness to the physical and behavioral health and housing resources they need,” said Jason Austin, director of the Orange County agency’s office of care coordination.
Kriz also believes that the virus may be causing homeless deaths in indirect ways, such as a lack of outreach.
“I think that the homeless, above all, are just afraid to go to the hospital,” Kriz said, pointing out the risks of visiting a hospital during a pandemic.
Months ago, Kriz and other homeless advocates held car rallies to advocate for the county to do more for the homeless during the pandemic.
Homeless activist Dave Duran, who was one of these advocates, said he doesn’t know whether the homeless are dying from COVID-19, but he surmised that it could negatively impact the population in a number of ways. With fewer people driving around, homeless who relied on panhandling may be facing a sharp decrease in their main source of money, he said, which could contribute to the number of homeless deaths.
Kriz and Duran said the county could be doing much more for the homeless.
The navigation center is scheduled to begin operation in November. Navigation centers differ from traditional homeless shelters, which aim to maximize the number of beds available each night.
The county has been seeking to help the homeless with Project Roomkey — a state initiative that provides temporary isolation shelter to homeless individuals who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and those who are at higher risk of developing a severe form of the illness. The initiative is providing 692 rooms from six hotel and motel sites.
The county is also providing about $1.3 million to homeless service providers to provide alternative temporary shelter placement for the homeless.
“It is our job to help the most vulnerable among us both during COVID and after,” Austin said through email.
Project Homekey, another state initiative, is the next phase in preventing the spread of the virus among the homeless population. With the help of $600 million in state grant funds, counties will purchase and rehabilitate hotels, motels, vacant apartments and other buildings.
Austin said the county has submitted three applications to the state for motel sites.
Kriz said Project Roomkey has been insufficient.
“The program never was dimensioned to the proper size,” Kriz said. “... There never was an attempt to put everybody who’s on the street into a hotel room.”
Kriz believes the county needs to purchase more hotels to house the homeless. There were almost 7,000 homeless people in the county, according to the 2019 Point-in-Time count.
“This is the time to do it, the hotels are cheaper than before,” Kriz said. “It would save lives...They spend the vast majority of their discretionary funds for law enforcement. So use some of that money to buy hotels.”
While Kriz believes that getting homeless people into hotels is likely the best route, he has complaints about Project Roomkey.
Kriz and Duran both say it puts limits on the homeless, making them stay in the hotels to curtail the spread of the virus. Duran likened the hotels and shelters to being run like “prisons.”
“Arguably it is justified for the reasons of, you know, that they don’t want people to be wandering all over the place and then bringing COVID into the hotel,” Kriz said. “... If you’re saying that people cannot freely leave, you’re basically asking people to join operation Roomkey, then it becomes essentially voluntary incarceration.”
It isn’t exactly clear what the answer is to protecting the homeless from the virus.
Kriz contends that the shelters were important but now can pose an issue with the spreading of the virus. He said shelters institute a 3-foot minimum distancing between beds. Yet, the consensus seems to hold that 6 feet of social distancing is necessary for fending off the spread of the virus.
“It’s 3-feet head-to-toe bed placement, which results in 6-feet face-to-face,” Austin said. “That is from the state.”
“The same standard for everything else is 6 feet,” Kriz said. “The only exemption, as far as I know, is for the homeless. That is something that is almost certainly not lost on them.”
Austin said the county is coordinating with homeless shelters to guide and recommend the best practices for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. He said this includes operational changes and reducing the number of occupants for the sake of social distancing.
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