As Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer rose to the podium, the audience broke out into applause.
The day before, on March 19, the Orange County Board of Supervisors had approved a plan to create temporary homeless shelters in the cities of Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel as a way to address the area’s growing homeless population, which last year stood at nearly 5,000, according to the county’s annual point-in-time count.
As the sole “no” vote on the board, Spitzer, who is also running for district attorney, took his case directly to Orange County residents, urging them to reject the county’s plan.
“You’re inviting the lowest common denominator of the homeless community who don’t want our help,” Spitzer said at a Laguna Niguel city council meeting on March 20. “That means you will not be able to control the kinds of people that are coming into our communities. And as a result of early release of prisoners, we have felons on our streets, and people who used to be in prison and jail—you combine that with the sex offender community and you’re going to find this community completely destroyed.”
A week later, after strong pushback from residents of the three cities—22 chartered buses transported more than 1,200 Irvine residents protesting the new shelters to the March 27 Board of Supervisors meeting—the board unanimously reversed its decision.
Earlier this year, Orange County evicted everyone living in the Santa Ana Riverbed, a homeless encampment of more than 700 people, and later, the Santa Ana Civic Center, which had about 200 residents. The county has since struggled to find long-term solutions for its homeless residents. Even though the county doesn’t have enough beds for the 2,500 unsheltered people living in the area, several plans to build new shelters have been rejected, and cities are stepping up measures to criminalize homelessness.
At the crux of this impasse, many homeless advocates say, are misperceptions of who the homeless are and why they are homeless. And, these attitudes aren’t common only among residents who say “Not In My Backyard” to shelters, low-income housing and treatment centers. They are also pushed from the top of county government.
But Spitzer’s depiction of the homeless as “sex offenders, drug addicts and felons,” as he said at a March 28 Costa Mesa city council meeting doesn’t match the county’s own data.
According to last year’s point-in-time count, only 15 percent of Orange County’s homeless population had been released from jail or prison in the past 12 months. Nine percent of homeless adults have chronic substance abuse—down from 30 percent since 2013—and 12 percent have a serious mental illness—also down in the past five years.
County Probation Department officials also told the nonprofit news site Voice of OC in March that only one convicted sex offender was among the 700 homeless people in the Riverbed—and that he would not have been eligible to stay at the proposed shelters.
Instead, economics are the primary driver of homelessness, according to a 2017 report by researchers at UC Irvine, with forty percent of those surveyed cited difficulty finding a job with sufficient wages, and 36 percent cited an inability to find affordable housing.
The fair-market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in Orange County last year was $1,813, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition—making it one of the most expensive housing markets in the state.
“The vast majority of homeless people, what we see in every study—especially here, more than anywhere else—are low-income workers, people who have jobs who don’t make enough to meet the cost of housing,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney with the Santa Ana-based Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, which filed a federal lawsuit to stop the county from clearing the Riverbed earlier this year.
Another persistent idea is that homelessness is a lifestyle choice. A report from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department—which showed that of 1,093 contacts made in the Santa Ana Riverbed encampment last year, 910 refused help—is often used as evidence.
“From that report, county officials concluded that this population doesn’t want help, they’re refusing services, so what can we do?” said Sarah Gregory, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. “From there they decided these folks are a lost cause, and we can step up criminalization, ticketing and arrest.”
But these numbers are misleading, said Gregory. The assessments were conducted in public alongside law enforcement, so individuals may not have felt comfortable accepting help. Meanwhile, another survey, conducted last year by the nonprofit City Net showed that 81 percent of those living in the Riverbed encampment were interested in case management that would help them out of homelessness.
David Ramirez, a 33-year-old who lived in the Riverbed until it was cleared, said that the perception that the homeless don’t want help is untrue—but that county services often don’t match homeless people’s needs.
Ramirez and his partner, for example, tried taking refuge at the Courtyard, a bus terminal-turned shelter in Santa Ana, but he quickly found that the site didn’t accommodate his disabled partner of 13 years, since the crowded and chaotic conditions of the shelter—which houses 400 people—exacerbated his symptoms of bipolar disorder.
“I said, ‘This isn’t going to work at all,’” said Ramirez. “I tried it and it was all bad. That’s why I refused to go into a shelter after the Courtyard—it was all bad.”
So the couple went back to the Riverbed.
This mismatch between services and needs has led to the misperception that people experiencing homelessness don’t want help, said Gregory. Legal Aid Society of Orange County is suing the county for failing to accommodate homeless people with disabilities, with Ramirez as a plaintiff.
“Legal Aid has served hundreds of homeless folks and I don’t know a single one who’s said, ‘Yeah, I have a house and I choose to be homeless,’” said Gregory.
Despite common depictions of the homeless in Orange County, the population is diverse.
More than one-quarter of Orange County’s homeless population is families with kids, according to last year’s point-in-time count, which put the total number of homeless children in the county at 754. The fastest growing segment of the homeless population, meanwhile, is senior women, said Weitzman.
Another quarter are survivors of domestic violence, according to the point-in-time count.
“When women, children and families experience domestic violence, one of the primary fears they have is being homeless,” said Maricela Rios-Faust, chief executive of Human Options, which serves survivors of domestic violence in Orange County.
After fleeing their homes, survivors continue to be at risk for homelessness, said Rios-Faust. Women often break leases to leave an abusive relationship or have bad credit because an abusive partner ran up their credit card bills—both of which can hurt their ability to find new housing. And many women struggle to reenter the work force.
“It’s a very vulnerable population,” said Rios-Faust, “and a population that has not traditionally had a voice and remains in the shadows of the larger homeless issue.”
Also represented in Orange County’s homeless population are veterans, who make up 10 percent of homeless adults, according to the point-in-time count, 88 percent of whom are unsheltered—a significant jump from 60 percent in 2013.
Trauma, which can lead to mental illness and substance abuse, is one reason veterans are susceptible to homelessness, said Antoinette Balta, co-founder of the Veterans Legal Institute, a Santa Ana nonprofit that serves homeless service members. In addition, the pride of having served in the military makes some hesitant to accept help.
Even though veterans injured in service are eligible for benefits, Balta said many would pass them up. “I can’t tell you how many people who say, ‘It’s not that bad, I’ll leave it for someone else,’” she said. “The element of pride is part of this very complex issue.”
And while Santa Ana has become the epicenter of the county’s homelessness crisis—its unsheltered population has more than doubled, from 466 in 2017 to 1,030 in March, according to city data—homelessness comes from all parts of the county.
This isn’t because outsiders are coming into the county—the UC Irvine study found that the majority of the homeless are longtime residents of the county—or because Santa Ana residents are somehow more susceptible to homelessness than the rest of the county.
As Weitzman explained, Orange County has funneled much of its homeless population into the predominantly Latino city that housed the county’s two largest homeless encampments before they were cleared this year, as well as the only year-round shelter.
While law enforcement from other cities in Orange County used to transport homeless individuals directly to Santa Ana, now it’s a more complicated process, she said. Santa Ana is the only place in the county to apply for cash aid, it’s where everyone from an Orange County jail is released back into the community, and it doesn’t have the same bans on sleeping, camping and loitering in public that other cities do, said Weitzman.
The result is that the homeless from whiter, wealthier cities are pushed into Santa Ana.
Mike Suydam, director of strategic initiatives on homelessness for Orange County United Way, said that the notion that homelessness only exists in Santa Ana has allowed the rest of the county to ignore the issue.
“With 34 cities in Orange County, everyone in each city is saying, ‘Let this be someone else’s problem,’” he said. “It’s a misperception that it’s Santa Ana’s problem. The demographics of the homeless are that they’re from all over the county.”
“These are people we went to high school with or our kids played Little League baseball with,” Suydam added. “These people are our neighbors and are in need of our help—and we need to help them.”