Homeless suffer most deaths in Orange County history
As the pandemic has gripped Orange County for nine months, the homeless have had few places to turn.
Homeless shelters have faced COVID-19 outbreaks and a lawsuit for sexual harassment and inhumane conditions. Project Roomkey, a statewide program that placed the homeless in hotel rooms, was said to be overly restrictive by homeless advocates who likened the hotels and shelters to 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 at 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, a local homeless advocate and pastor of a Fullerton church. "... But it’s also like some of what was built now doesn’t work as well. It really is kind of like having built the Maginot Line ...”
Kriz publishes the names and stories of the deceased homeless on the Voice of OC every month. He also used to allow a homeless encampment on his church’s grounds despite opposition from parishioners.
Kriz said the the county and cities haven’t done enough to keep the homeless 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, Voice of OC reported that there have been outbreaks in 16 homeless shelters in the county.
Tim Houchen, a homeless advocate who was once homeless, said he thinks the street is safer for the homeless right now, though it may be an unpopular opinion.
Houchen said he was uncomfortable being at shelters surrounded by the sick when he was homeless.
“Now these congregate shelters, nobody wants to go to them,” Houchen 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 the homeless who have died. The event was held virtually last month.
Houchen was recently elected to the Orange County Continuum of Care 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. Only five of the deaths are listed as being due to COVID-19. About 90 of the individuals have cause of deaths listed as either pending investigation, natural causes or the cause has been left blank.
Houchen and Kriz said many of the deaths are directly and indirectly related to the pandemic.
Houchen said that one reason for more homeless deaths could be illnesses caused by bad hygiene because public bathrooms are no longer available due to the pandemic.
“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 homeless people are afraid to go to hospitals due to possible exposure to the virus. Now, as hospitals are being overrun by COVID-19 patients, homeless 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 the homeless prior to the pandemic have been reduced.
Because opioids, particularly fentanyl, are responsible for many homeless overdoses 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 more than 330 homeless people passed away last year in the county.
In past years, Houchen added names to the coroner’s list of homeless people who died that he independently verified. In 2020, he didn’t add any names because he wasn’t able to get out on foot to verify other deaths due to the pandemic.
“It’s an undercount almost certainly,” Kriz said. “But it’s the only count we have.”
Advocates have been concerned about the rise in homeless deaths since the infant months of the pandemic.
Kriz and other activists held car rallies to advocate for the county to do more for the homeless.
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 the homeless.
The county has purchased a Stanton hotel and motel so far. The former Stanton Inn & Suites began operating as interim housing in late November. The second site, the former Tahiti Motel, is currently 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 are positive or symptomatic for COVID-19, Austin said.
Homeless advocates like Kriz and Houchen will continue to advocate for the most vulnerable as the darkest months of the pandemic continue 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 homeless cases that were pending for more than a year and there are still no 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 passed away 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.
According to homeless advocates, the list likely doesn’t include all the homeless who died last year in Orange County.
Homeless 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
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