Commentary: Hearing from those experiencing homelessness lights the best path forward

Tony Yim with the Newport Beach Police Department speaks with homeless people at Balboa Pier in 2019.
Tony Yim, a homeless liaison officer with the Newport Beach Police Department, speaks with homeless people staying at the Balboa Pier in 2019.
(File Photo)

While there is no shortage of opinions about homelessness, often the voices that are left out in the debate are of those who are experiencing homelessness themselves.

For the first time, the county of Orange — through their advisory Commission to End Homelessness — sought first-hand information from the people surviving on the streets.

In the 2023 Orange County Homeless Survey, recently administered by the Office of Care Coordination and City Net, more than 640 people shared their experiences navigating systems and roadblocks encountered.


The methodology was a bold pivot from previous surveys, and a credit to the leadership of Doug Becht at the County of Orange. While data is invaluable, what speaks to me are the needs for dignity, safety, and health.


This survey goes a long way to debunking many of the stereotypes maintained about homelessness and highlights disconnects between the services provided and the ones desired.

As an example, respondents said their number one need was for hygiene, followed by housing and storage. In rankings of services being discussed by providers, hygiene ranked fifth and providing storage wasn’t even on the list.

Far from being service resistant, the survey shows that the vast majority of those experiencing homelessness want help, but that help isn’t getting to them or is not readily available. More than half of those interviewed have not had any contact from outreach personnel or case managers in the last three months. Of those who did have contact, less than half were connected to services.

Clearly, we are not reaching people where they are, and we need to become more effective when connections are made. We must redouble efforts to evaluate strategic outreach strategies to maximize engagement and ensure services are accessible and are addressing both immediate needs such as hygiene along with longer term needs like permanent housing.

Addressing Orange County’s housing crisis on a city-by-city basis with different rules and processes leaves the larger problem unsolved, writes the director of People for Housing OC.

Nov. 19, 2023


Despite the picture some may try to paint, the prevalence of homeless encampments and tent cities are largely overstated. More than 80% of respondents said they did not live in encampments, with three-quarters sleeping with only a blanket or sleeping bag.

When asked about reasons for not utilizing shelter, concerns about safety and privacy were primary concerns, as well as the professionalism of shelter operators. The survey validates that our system needs to be trauma-informed, accessible and available to all in need.


The significant health issues that many people living outside are experiencing are deeply concerning. About 85% reported having a disabling condition with almost half saying they have three or more, such as mental health, physical disability, substance abuse or developmental disability. Homelessness is a health crisis, too.

It appears that overall health has declined since the 2022 Point in Time count. The survey found that 22% of people with substance abuse issues want treatment yet can’t access it, while 24% in need of mental health care lack access. The death rate among people without a home has been rising every year, and 2023 is on track to be the highest number of deaths per year to date. We simply must prioritize the health of our unhoused neighbors as an urgent part of our community response.

Efforts like CalOptima Health’s street medicine program, which launched earlier this year in partnership with the city of Garden Grove and Healthcare in Action to offer comprehensive healthcare to individuals experiencing homelessness, are to be commended. We must encourage our leaders to create more of these innovative models.

The path forward

With the information provided to us by the people who are experiencing this firsthand, we need to ask ourselves: “Are we willing to listen? Are we going to pay attention? And, most importantly, how will we respond?”

These are tough questions and the survey is a big step forward for us as a community. The findings should propel us forward in finding solutions.

We know that housing solves homelessness and that people need to be supported to regain access to housing and with opportunities to thrive once housed. This is the only way to provide our neighbors with dignity, safety and health.

Becks Heyhoe is the executive director of United to End Homelessness, Orange County United Way.