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Homeless people don’t just live on OC streets; they die there, too

LAGUNA BEACH —  It’s dark and cold. Traffic thunders just a few feet away on busy North Coast Highway, drowning out the waves crashing just yards beyond. A young man — long sandy hair, maybe 25? — sits cross-legged on a sleeping bag in front of Starbucks. “How you doing?” we volunteers ask. In slow motion, as if moving underwater, the man’s head tilts upward. His eyes are so glassy they’re almost mirrors.

Brad Fieldhouse is nearly 7 feet tall — seriously — and he’s the head of City Net, the nonprofit hired to do the 2024 Point in Time Count of homeless people in Orange County. I, nervously, stand ready to administer the survey, while the towering Fieldhouse explains to the young man exactly what we’re doing. We’d just like to ask some questions, it’ll help policymakers figure out how best to help, two $5 gift cards are available for your troubles…. Slowly, painfully slowly, the man shakes his head no, rises to his feet and retreats behind the building.

Another man, Bill, appears. He’s 60, once worked in plumbing, pulls a collapsible wagon filled with thin blankets. He flashes a white hospital bracelet that he won’t take off — he considers it his sole means of official identification — and tells us he was released from a facility in Long Beach just a few days ago. Heart disease. He hikes up his sweatshirt to reveal a not-inconsequential belly, upon which “LONG BEACH” is tattooed in capital letters.

“I’m trying to find some housing,” he says. “That’s why I come down here. You can trust people over here more.”

It’s Thursday, Jan. 25, the final night of the federally mandated homeless count that happens every two years. This is South Orange County, where — at least according to just about every southern city except Laguna Beach — official homeless shelters are unnecessary. It’s a responsibility southerners have gladly relinquished to northern cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim, while letting local churches and nonprofits wrestle with what’s left.

Local officials fear that opening a shelter means more homeless people will flock to their cities. There’s blaming and shaming because many of those who need help have substance use problems. And we’re trapped in a philosophical faceoff between those who argue that folks should be free to chart their own course without government intervention, and those who argue that civilized societies don’t allow sick and vulnerable people to live — and die — on public streets.

Attention, city councilfolk below the Irvine Mason-Dixon line: Homeless folks don’t just live in your cities, they die there, too. Forty-five homeless people took their last breaths in your cities in 2023 — a dozen in Mission Viejo, nine in San Clemente, six in Lake Forest, three in Laguna Hills, three in Dana Point, three in San Juan Capistrano, two in Laguna Niguel, and one each in Capistrano Beach, Ladera Ranch and Rancho Santa Margarita.




Clearly, city-supported homeless shelters aren’t the ultimate answer here — but they’re a pretty monumental step on the path to one.

When I built my house in Laguna Beach 20 years ago, parts of the stunning, seaside Heisler Park were bona fide homeless encampments. Main Beach and that cute, twinkly, art-gallery-laden downtown were dotted with the downtrodden as well. But in 2009, the city stepped up: It opened a city-owned and funded “low barrier” 45-bed emergency shelter, the only one of its kind in South County. That allowed it to tell folks, “You have a safe place to go. Go there.”

Has it made a difference? One of our team’s first assignments Thursday night was walking the length of Heisler Park, peering down to beaches and over lawns, looking for unhoused folks. We found not a single, solitary soul.

Let’s not be Pollyanna: Shelters are not a panacea. Four homeless people died in Laguna Beach last year, two trying to cross South Coast Highway. Homeless folks still camp around Laguna’s twinkly downtown, particularly near Main Beach.

Rex, 59, has one unseeing eye. He doesn’t want to go to a shelter; it’s not too cold to sleep outside if you have a sleeping bag, he says. Churches in town bring coffee and sandwiches to Main Beach every weekday morning, and on Sunday, he’s at the Women’s Club. “Homelessness,” he says, “is part of the American equation.”

There’s a bearded man on the bench by the pedestrian mall part of Forest Avenue. He eats with his fingers from a cardboard take-out box. The man recognizes the towering Fieldhouse and Fieldhouse recognizes him: They met in the wee hours earlier that morning, at the Jack in the Box on South Coast Highway. This man was with a belligerent guy who mistook Fieldhouse for a cop, probably fearing Fieldhouse would make him spill out the magic elixir secreted away in his cup.

This man, Sean, initially brushes us off as well. As we wish him a safe evening and retreat, he follows us and starts talking. One of his hands is wrapped in a dirty bandage.

“I appreciate what you’re doing,” Sean says, launching into a soliloquy about how smaller people like him are targets on the streets, how he has beaten up people bigger than Fieldhouse, how if they were drowning in the waves in the ocean he would “drag your ass to shore or die trying.”

“What would it take to get you indoors?” Fieldhouse asks. “A room of your own, where you can lock the door, have all your things, be under a roof, be safe?”

Nothing could get him indoors, Sean says.

Fieldhouse persists, borrowing Sean’s own words. “I think you’d like that. We’re going to do it, or die trying,” Fieldhouse says.

‘This is America’

The Point in Time Count is an enormous undertaking. It requires some six months of behind-the-scenes prep working with local cities, law enforcement and nonprofits, to understand where homeless people are likely to be, map out hotspots then assign teams to canvas them.

It takes another couple months to clean the data and finalize the numbers. Fieldhouse’s City Net has a $688,000 county contract to orchestrate this year’s count. More than 900 volunteers stepped up to help.

Doug Becht, director of the county’s office of care coordination, has worked these counts in New York and San Diego. Some 3,500 surveys had been logged in O.C. by Thursday evening.

“We understand the Point in Time Count does not ask every question. It misses folks. But it is a valuable tool,” Becht says.

There’s enormous hope that this year’s trend will be downward — and that southern cities will see the wisdom of stepping up.

“We continue to believe there is a need for shelter here,” Becht says. “Location is important. People in San Clemente don’t want to go to Santa Ana or Anaheim for shelter. It would be so great if we could do more. The county wants to partner with cities, but we are not going to push our way into cities that don’t want us.”

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley was on a team in San Clemente early Thursday morning. She’s been taking South County city officials to Costa Mesa’s shelter, near the airport, and rather invisible to anyone who doesn’t know it’s there.

“We have options” she tells them. “We can reduce the visual impact of homelessness and better help people. We can no longer lead with the idea that ‘It’s their right to be on the street.’ We have to lead with offering shelter, helping people help themselves.”

The answer is not just housing — it’s permanent, supportive housing, which means professionals on site, the experts say. Plans and programs to boost this approach are underway in O.C. and throughout California.

O.C.’s median household income was $109,361 in 2022. Hours after our mission ended, on my way back to my nice warm home, I detoured past the Starbucks on North Coast Highway. Bill was there, huddled beneath his blankets on the hard sidewalk.

How, I keep asking myself, is this OK?

“This is America,” Fieldhouse says. “It is not OK to have people living and dying on the streets.”

Source: Orange County Register

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