Costa Mesa and Newport Beach look ahead to decreasing homelessness after shelter’s first year

The bridge shelter in Costa Mesa.
The bridge shelter in Costa Mesa earlier this month. The shelter is operated by Mercy House, but is paid for by Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

In the year since Costa Mesa and Newport Beach opened a permanent 72-bed bridge shelter on Costa Mesa’s Airway Avenue, officials say the facility is playing a critical role in helping people move off the streets and back onto their feet.

As of Friday, the shelter was nearly at capacity. Nate Robbins, a neighborhood improvement manager for the city of Costa Mesa, reported that since April 2021 the site has served about 204 clients and helped 33 people transition into permanent housing.

Although the shelter offers but a temporary solution, those who work there describe it as a lifeline between residents and the programs and services that help them reintegrate into their local communities.

Natalie Basmaciyan, a homelessness coordinator for the city of Newport Beach, said so far about 65 of the city’s unhoused individuals have come through the doors of the Airway Avenue shelter.

She recalled one woman who volunteered with the city as part of a “community impact team,” that allows shelter clients to prepare for an eventual return to the workplace by participating in community service projects.

“That’s what motivated her to contact her family,” said Basmaciyan, adding the client reunited with her mother and 6-year-old son after a few months of being at the bridge shelter.

Basmaciyan cited another success story about outreach volunteers who’d met a woman named Katie down by Newport Pier and took her to the bridge shelter. There, she was able to obtain an emergency housing voucher and eventually acquired her own apartment in Anaheim.

“We’re able to get people into this more formal continuum of care, because we have the shelter and people are close to places that they’re used to getting services,” Basmaciyan said.

Orange County officials last week released the results of the 2022 Point in Time count — a biennial real-time census of the county’s sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals that aims to identify trends and coordinate local response efforts.

The figures tracked a 16.6% decrease in the overall unhoused population compared to 2019, from 6,860 to 5,718. The number of unsheltered individuals decreased 23%, while those residing in local shelters also fell, from 2,899 in 2019 to 2,661 in 2022.

County officials praised the results of the 2022 Point in Time count during a press conference Wednesday but said there is more work to be done to solve the local homeless crisis.

Costa Mesa saw an overall decline of about 20% from the 187 homeless people counted in 2019. Mayor John Stephens attributed the trend to a coordinated effort by local officials, agencies and service providers.

“Since the 2019 count, we have permanently housed a total of 215 individuals,” Stephens said in a statement Thursday. “Through the hard work of many and the council’s decisive actions, we are in a much better place than we were three years ago.”

Costa Mesa Asst. City Manager Susan Price, known in her former role as Orange County’s director of care coordination as the “Homelessness Czar,” said Tuesday the census figures are solid, given how badly shelters were impacted during the pandemic.

At Airway Avenue, for example, social distancing requirements shrunk capacity from 72 to about 40 or 50, causing staff to ramp up outreach efforts to ensure services didn’t decline.

“It was one of the most difficult two years we’ve had,” she said. “[But] I think we’re going to do really well in the next couple of years and yield better results in the next count, for sure, because of the investments we’re making.”

In addition to maintaining shelter operations, Costa Mesa has used federal pandemic funds to provide rental assistance, augmented its street outreach teams and is working to transition outdated motel properties into permanent supportive housing through California’s Project Homekey program.

“Costa Mesa is on its way to building out a proper ecosystem to respond to homelessness locally and regionally, through its partnership with Newport Beach and the county,” Price said.

In Newport Beach, despite the opening of the bridge shelter — where 20 beds have been specifically dedicated to the city’s unhoused population — the number of unsheltered residents climbed, from 64 recorded in 2019 to 96 this year.

City spokesman John Pope said officials believe the census has shifted since the count was conducted in February, indicating more recent counts taken in May show a smaller population.

“Our data shows an average of 51 homeless individuals in the city over an eight-month period beginning in July 2021 with a most recent count of 47 for March 2022,” Pope said, adding that since the count was conducted, the city has rolled out its own mental health crisis intervention service, Be Well OC.

“Of course, not all shelter placements connect immediately to permanent housing, but we have had multiple success stories of people who were able to get the needed services at the bridge shelter,” Pope continued.

Price said challenges still exist, particularly among homeless individuals with mental health and addiction problems who don’t engage in available services. But local officials are doing what they can to reach people wherever they’re at.

“We’re offering compassionate assistance to every single one of the people we come in contact with,” she said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to build on the success we’ve had to date.”

Clients enjoy chili and cornbread in the dining room of the bridge shelter.
Clients enjoy chili and cornbread in the dining room of the bridge shelter in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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