As OC spending on homelessness grows, the number of homeless people grows, too

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

After speaking with a nearby homeless individual, volunteers Katherine Ibarra, left, of the Garden Grove Regional Center and Yolie Negrete, right, a program supervisor at City Net, check their map on where to go next before dawn in Santa Ana on Jan. 23. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The definition of insanity, they say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Welcome to the asylum!

Despite spending more and more and money on homeless services, the problem in California gets worse and worse.

While the ranks of homeless swelled more slowly in Orange County than elsewhere, there are still 28% more unhoused folks here today than there were in 2022 — despite county government spending more than twice as much money to help these folks (about $112.3 million in 2022, and $263.3 million in 2024), according to the latest Point In Time survey and county financial data.

An admittedly obnoxious back-of-the-napkin calculation suggests that we could have given every homeless person about $35,000 — which would pay for a one-bedroom apartment with pool and gym in many lovely neighborhoods in the O.C. — and saved a few million to boot.

If you look over a gentler five-year time frame — back to 2019, before COVID-related eviction moratoriums and emergency cash aid helped people keep roofs over their heads — homelessness was up only 7% in O.C., while it was up 20% statewide and (gulp) 29% in neighboring counties.

More than 180,000 Californians were homeless last year — a 53% increase from 2013, a recent report from the state auditor said.

A third of America’s unhoused people are here, in the Golden State.

Forgive us for shouting, but WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT, CALIFORNIA. Civilized societies don’t allow vulnerable people to live — and die — on public streets.

A few ideas

Let’s acknowledge the nexus between homelessness and addiction. In 2019, 33.7% of unsheltered adults acknowledged having substance use issues. This year, fully half — 50% — said the same. If we were the betting type, we’d wager that was an undercount.

Policymakers might swallow their insistence on abstinence, recognize that some folks don’t want to stop using drugs, and get them into safe consumption sites where they at least have access to help if and when they’re ready, and access to medical help to keep them alive in the meantime. (More than 500 homeless people died on the Orange County streets last year — the vast majority from overdoses.)

They also might build more housing! Yes, California has an official “housing first” philosophy to guide homelessness spending. It’s eminently logical: “Housing First is an approach … that recognizes a homeless person must first be able to access a decent, safe place to live, that does not limit length of stay (permanent housing), before stabilizing, improving health, reducing harmful behaviors, or increasing income,” the state policy geeks say.

Spot on! Excellent! Except that … there’s still not enough. Despite California investing $24 billion over the last five years to battle homelessness. The state and counties push for more, but land use is largely in control of cities.

“We don’t have enough permanent housing,” said Doug Becht, director of the county’s Office of Care Coordination, briefing reporters on the Point In Time data on Wednesday. “The amount of people entering homelessness is outpacing our system’s ability to get them into permanent housing. … It’s really an issue of housing capacity at this point.”

One day in April, Orange County officials surveyed hundreds of people staying in two shelters. Nearly three-quarters of those folks — 72% — had completed all the necessary steps to be eligible for permanent housing. But only 1 in 12 — 8% — could be placed, Becht said.

More Homekey and CalWORKS Housing Support might help.

While the state audit blasted California for failing to track its homeless spending well enough to divine if programs were actually working, it found these two were “likely” cost-effective. Homekey helps local governments turn run-down motels into housing (costing an average of $144,000 per unit, compared to new construction costs of $380,000 to $570,000), while the CalWORKS Housing Support Program provides financial aid to families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless (costing some $12,000 to $22,000 per household, while a chronically homeless person can cost up to $50,000 a year).

There’s reason to be at least a little hopeful. Orange County has distributed hundreds of housing shelter vouchers and added hundreds of beds over the last several years. It has hundreds more coming online. California’s new CARE Court system, which seeks to get severely mentally ill people off the streets and into treatment, might help as well.

Becht stressed that the Point In Time count is strictly a census of homelessness on one given day — not an assessment on the homeless services system — but it can be hard to see it that way.

The measure of an effective homeless services system should be a decrease in homelessness, no?

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.

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