Each day, thousands of our Orange County community members face homelessness. Acknowledging the difficulty of the topic and disagreements by people of good will regarding solutions, we would like to ask and to propose a response to the question: Who are those facing homelessness and what do we owe them?

The individuals experiencing homelessness in our county are our neighbors. The majority have strong ties to our community, as they have family members in the area, had their last permanent address in Orange County, lived in Orange County for more than 10 years before becoming homeless, or worked in Orange County.

Of the 5,718 persons experiencing homelessness in Orange County as of 2022, most were born in the United States and became homeless due to difficulty finding a job with a reliable income, difficulty finding affordable housing or a challenging family situation, such as death or divorce. To protect the lives of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, we are called to act to provide sustainable solutions to address hunger and homelessness in Orange County.

Orange County’s Continuum of Care Board, established in 2016, oversees the implementation of a continuum of care to address homelessness in Orange County. The Continuum of Care Board distributes funding for prevention, outreach, shelters and housing to address homelessness. In evaluating the efficacy of actions in these four categories, the Orange County Grand Jury identified shortcomings in Orange County’s responses to homelessness.

While outreach efforts have increased successful shifts from homelessness to shelter by 33% through increased community trust and client contacts, there are not sufficient care facilities or services to address
the needs of homeless individuals who experience mental illness or substance abuse. Some chronically homeless individuals do not engage with permanent housing or assistance programs because they do not trust outreach programs after previous precedents, they experience substance abuse or mental illness and are not ready for treatment, they fear for their safety in housing and shelter programs, they think the rules of a given facility are too strict or they dislike the transportation access requirements for shelter programs.

To better support our homeless neighbors, our responses to homelessness should address both the causes of homelessness and the needs of those experiencing homelessness.

The Orange County Grand Jury found six key deficiencies in Orange County’s efforts to address homelessness.

– First, South Orange County lacks low-threshold emergency shelters, which leads to more homeless encampments and unsheltered individuals.

– Second, our existing justice system incarcerates many homeless people with severe and persistent mental illness or addiction issues, rather than providing more suitable placements for treatment.

-Third, Orange County and its cities often miss key opportunities to collaborate in supporting shelters and services.

-Fourth, there are not enough rental units for people leaving Emergency Shelters, which leads many to return to homelessness.

-Furthermore, though OC Care Coordination implements an effective community-based system of care for those experiencing homelessness, there are not sufficient resources to successfully house our homeless population.

-Finally, there are insufficient resources for Transitional Aged Youth who age out of the Foster Care system and experience vulnerability to homelessness.

Added pressures are coming, as over the past few months a number of Los Angeles County cities that border Orange County have met the requirements to enforce “No overnight camping” ordinances .Without actual increased housing (permanent and transitional) this will mean Orange County will see increased numbers of unhoused individuals.

Unless County Supervisors and City Officials act now to increase shelter beds and, more importantly, to expedite construction of permanent supportive and affordable housing, cities throughout Orange County will face a significantly greater homeless population than currently exists.

In an Op Ed in the OC Register in anticipation of “Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week,” Bishop Vann joined other faith leaders in calling for reflection on the following questions:

-What does your home mean to you?

-What does it mean to be human?

-What would our communities look like if we treated housing as a human right?

“Even if the answers are complex or hit a nerve,” they write, “the process of considering housing as a human right has the power to transform our language and attitudes about housing. Then we can begin to discuss changes to policies that can lead us to be a more sustainable and hospitable place.”

In his visit to the United States in 2015, Pope Francis stated directly: “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
No one denies the complexity of the problem. Yet there is no justification for our lack of collective action.
If each human being, as John Paul II put it, “unique and unrepeatable, somebody thought of and chosen from eternity,” then this crisis whether described by scenes of blight or statistics on a page deserves our attention. Though this may be an uncomfortable topic to address, if we simply ignore it, we cannot expect the situation to change for the better. In addition to praying, we should strive to be aware of the difficulties faced by the homeless, assist as we are able and also keep in mind that some people are a paycheck away from being out on the street.

(Sources: Grand Jury 2021-2022, “How is Orange County Addressing Homelessness?”; United to End Homelessness; 2022 Point In Time Summary; “Homelessness in Orange County: The Costs to Our Community,” report by OC United Way, Jamoboree, and UCI)