By Collin Breaux | Email: cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com | Twitter: @collin_breaux

Organizations and officials throughout Orange County are continuing to work on helping the homeless in the area.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges in the homelessness crisis, whether it be new social distancing requirements at shelters or the subsequent economic crisis leaving open the possibility of homelessness increasing.

Homeless encampments are visible at Historic Town Center Park in San Juan Capistrano and in nearby areas. Resources are available to assist people with transitioning into housing.

A tent is set up at Historic Town Center Park in San Juan Capistrano, one of the areas in Orange County homeless people gather at. Photo: Collin Breaux

Becks Heyhoe, the director for United to End Homelessness, an initiative of Orange County United Way that launched in 2018, said reasons for homelessness include struggling to find jobs with sustainable wages and lack of affordable housing, along with family issues such as domestic violence and divorce.

“There’s been a real movement of people who want to see solutions as it becomes more visible,” Heyhoe said.

Those solutions include creating more permanent housing and putting people in such. Heyhoe said while shelters are good and can be a stepping stone, they don’t permanently end homelessness.

United to End Homelessness has a WelcomeHomeOC landlord program, which they fully launched in March 2019 after an earlier pilot program. The organization works with property owners on getting homeless people into homes, and can assist with matters such as security deposits and other costs that can be barriers.

“Without housing, you can’t really do anything else,” Heyhoe said.

The program can also help people who might have specific needs, such as a disabled person who could need a ground floor apartment.

United to End Homelessness is still assisting others during the ongoing health crisis, which Heyhoe said was a “real challenge” since housing authorities transitioned to remote operations.

“Despite that, we still have been able to house people,” Heyhoe said.

The support services United to End Homelessness provides vary based on a person’s needs—for instance, someone might need support for a few months if they’re economically disadvantaged, or more long-term support if they’re physically disabled and have been homeless for a long time.

United to End Homelessness also offers ongoing virtual education on homelessness, in which people can learn about statistics and best ways to help. Visit their website at unitedtoendhomelessness.org for more information on the education and their organization.

The 2019 Point In Time Count identified 6,860 people in Orange County experiencing homelessness, including 2,899 people in shelters and transitional housing and 3,961 people experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Sixty-two homeless individuals were counted in San Juan Capistrano. The next Point In Time count will be in January 2021 and is expected to provide updated numbers and demographic information for Orange County.

There has been no recorded 2020 Point In Time Count for Orange County, because they are only required every other year.

Personal items, including shoes, are laid out at Historic Town Center Park in San Juan Capistrano, one area in Orange County homeless people gather at. Photo: Collin Breaux

Jason Austin, director of the Office of Care Coordination for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said the issue of homelessness continues to be a priority for the county.

“The county continues to work on developing a responsive System of Care that addresses the needs of those experiencing homelessness and provides a safety net of supportive services and resources to those that are at-risk of homelessness,” Austin said. “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the County is currently focused on providing resources and services that mitigate and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the homeless population.”

The county’s COVID-19 Homelessness Response System encompasses three components: a Temporary Isolation Shelter for individuals who are sick or symptomatic for COVID-19; a Temporary Shelter for Vulnerable Populations, including asymptomatic individuals who are medically vulnerable and /or 65 years and older; and an Alternative Shelter System for individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness and asymptomatic.

“The first two components are part of the county’s implementation of the state initiative, Project Roomkey,” Austin said. “Project Roomkey is designed to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by providing non-congregate shelter in hotels and motels for sick and medically vulnerable persons experiencing homelessness.”

On the city level in San Juan Capistrano, City Manager Ben Siegel said homelessness remains a challenging issue in town, just as it is in South Orange County and across the entire region. 

“There is concern that the economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will push more people into homelessness, and we are closely monitoring conditions within our local community in order to make contact and provide resources to those who are especially vulnerable before they find themselves without adequate housing,” Siegel said.

San Juan Capistrano is taking numerous steps to address homelessness.

The city employs a full-time Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy as the Homeless Liaison Officer, who is specially trained to work with the homeless population, including resource referral.  The city also contracts with Mercy House Living Centers, a nonprofit homeless services organization that administers the city’s homeless outreach program, provides diversion and prevention services, and provides rental assistance to homeless individuals in the city.

“Last year, the city council approved ‘The Groves’ project, an affordable residential development for seniors, located on city-owned land across from JSerra,” Siegel said. “That project will include 10 Permanent Supportive Housing units for seniors.  Permanent Supportive Housing, or PSH, will serve individuals who have been homeless or are at greatest risk of becoming homeless, and offers long-term housing with 24/7 on-site services.”

City officials believe PSH is the most effective, long-term solution to addressing homelessness.  The Groves project is expected to be under construction this year.

“Additionally, the city council approved an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement with Jamboree Housing that will allow both parties to explore the potential of a PSH project at the current City Hall site, at the terminus of Paseo Adelanto,” Siegel said. “The project concept would provide approximately 40 units and be integrated into a new Civic Center facility.”

Jamboree Housing and the county would work to identify eligible tenants who have a “high likelihood of success” under the project, with preference given to the local homeless population.  The city and Jamboree are reportedly in active discussions and are currently analyzing project feasibility, including financing and constructability constraints.   

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