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The nearly 7,000 people officially homeless n Orange County should be a wake up call to the County and all 34 cities to start building affordable and permanent supportive housing, in addition to shelters, according to experts in the field.

Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon said the count, which was made public Wednesday, should signal the County and cities to speed up their efforts in helping the homeless.

“I think it’s just a report card saying we better speed it up — like today. Not wait for six months to get these shelters open,” Leon said. “We have to have permanent supportive housing on the backend as we open up these shelters, with the thought that we’re not going to leave them open long. We’re going to stabilize people, triage them and get them into permanent supportive housing as fast as we can.”

Illumination Foundation is a nonprofit aimed at helping homeless people and operates a shelter in Anaheim.

“I think it demonstrates the pressing need for policy that supports the idea of housing people and finding the resources and making sure that new resources coming into the system are properly allocated,” said Pathways of Hope Director David Gillanders.

Pathways is a nonprofit that works with cities to build permanent supportive housing to get homeless people off the streets and out of shelters. That type of housing includes medical and mental health services, job counseling and other social services for people who otherwise may not be able to live on their own.

The County released its federally mandated biennial Point in Time Count numbers  showing 6,860 homeless people across the county, both in shelters and on the streets. The number of people who sleep on the streets is nearly 4,000.

The last count in 2017 showed roughly 4,800 homeless people living in the county. But the 2017 count was an estimate and while 2019’s count saw scores of volunteer teams scour the county in January to count individual homeless people.

“It goes to show you that we’re not even close to keeping up even with all did last year,” Leon said of the countywide shelter effort.

The shelter effort was spurred by a federal lawsuit against the County, Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa last year over homeless policies, like prosecuting people for sleeping in public areas when there’s no shelter beds available.

Most of the homeless people reside in Central and North county.

Central County has 3,332 homeless people sleeping living there, which includes people sleeping in shelters and on the streets, according to the 2019 count. Santa Ana has the highest concentration with over half of that number at 1,769 people.

North County has 2,675 homeless residents, with 1,596 people sleeping outside, according to January’s count. Anaheim has the highest number of homeless people in it at 1,202, including sheltered and unsheltered.

Both Anaheim and Santa Ana have at least two homeless shelters in their cities.

South County has 763 homeless people, most — 538 — are sleeping outside. Laguna Beach has the highest number of homeless people at 147, but there’s also a homeless shelter there. San Clemente followed at 145 people and Irvine isn’t far behind with 130 people.

Cities with the lowest homeless numbers were Villa Park and Yorba Linda with one person and Aliso Viejo with none.

Leon said city leaders with low numbers of homeless people shouldn’t ignore the growing problem and help with the shelter and housing efforts because homeless people constantly move around — especially since most, if not all, the shelters are full.

“Each city has to think that’s in my city, all these guys could be in my city. That’s the way I would look at it if I was a city councilman,” Leon said. “My whole thought process is, man, we gotta hurry. You can’t be waiting, that number’s going to go up and we’ll never catch up. To me, it’s a ticking time bomb.”

Gillanders said the 2019 count demonstrates the pressing need for housing geared toward homeless people.

“We’re designating this now as an accurate benchmark as homelessness … the only thing we know that ends homelessness for the population is permanent supportive housing in some kind of way,” he said.

Like Leon, Gillanders also said all 34 cities need to be on the same page.

“To me, it’s a pretty glaring indictment on our lack of housing infrastructure on permanent supportive housing and other housing resources that can get these people moved off the streets … it’s going to take all 34 cities in a concerted effort to see 7,000 (homeless people) go to zero,” Gillanders said.

Since the federal lawsuit landed last year, a countywide housing trust was formed and is currently getting cities to sign up as members in an effort to build at least 2,700 permanent supportive housing units, along with affordable housing for low to extremely low income residents. County Supervisors took the initial step when they approved the trust in March.

There’s also been an uptick in homeless deaths around the county. At least 250 homeless people died in the county last year. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who presides over the lawsuit against the County for its homeless policies, called the rising deaths a “public health crisis.”

In response to the rising homeless deaths and pressure from Carter, CalOptima, the county’s insurance plan for the poor, created medical field teams to treat homeless people in the streets and at shelters beginning in April. The agency also earmarked $100 million for homeless services, most — $60 million — is for new homeless services that haven’t been defined yet.

Leon said he’s been telling cities that helping homeless people is more than putting them in shelters.

“I was fearful that cities wanted a quick fix and we’re telling cities that are talking to us, look this is a huge decision — millions of dollars and you need to do it the right way (with supportive housing after),” Leon said. “If you just put them there, they’re going to stay there.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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