By Tom Connolly     10/6/2016

The homeless population throughout Orange County continues to be an increasing concern to local government officials who are striving to create solutions.

The University of California, Irvine, in partnership with Association of California Cities – Orange County (ACC-OC), Jamboree Housing, 2-1-1 Orange County and the Southern California Hospital Association have launched a study to quantify the costs of homelessness to Orange County cities.

Dr. David Snow, a professor of sociology at UCI, is heading up the study and hopes the collaborative efforts will pave the way for improvement.

“No comprehensive, county-wide study research currently exists on the cost of homelessness by our local communities,” Snow says. “We look forward to breaking new ground and providing a solid empirical base for forging policy solutions to this ongoing problem.”

It is estimated that the Orange County homeless population can climb as high as 15,000 in a single year.

Nonprofit 2-1-1 Orange County, a free 24-hour information and referral helpline that links health and human services to the needy, estimates that homelessness has grown 5 percent in the county since 2013.

There are varying degrees of homelessness and the study plans on collecting data from county shelters, as well as from the homeless who live on the street and in motels.

Snow’s UCI team is comprised of UCI Assistant Professor of sociology Dr. Rachel Goldberg and two graduate assistants. The group will analyze and evaluate the data that is collected from the surveys generated by UCI and its partnering agencies. A final report is expected later this year.

Despite the size of the task, Snow is confident the study will be comprehensive.

Cities are asked to identify the costs they spend on law enforcement, health care and emergency services, such as ambulance services and hospital expenditures, and other costs relating to aiding and protecting the homeless populations. Public safety, parks and recreation and mental health service costs are also being accumulated.

Snow conveyed that the study will provide recommendations to local policy makers, so local government can better allocate resources for the homeless.

“We hope to build a ‘recipe’ of how homelessness can be handled and getting people off the streets and into housing,” he says.

George Searcy, vice president of community impact at the Jamboree Housing Corporation in Irvine, works with homeless and low-income families to provide housing and human services throughout Orange County.

“The goal of the study is to identify the hidden cost to the cities caring for the homeless,” Searcy says. “Funds are expended on a monthly basis by law enforcement, ambulance services, emergency wards and other agencies and our goal is to quantify those costs. Hospitals attempt to bill for services to Medicare and in many cases the hospitals are not compensated for their services and have to ‘eat’ the costs.

“Reoccurrence of homeless readmits to area hospitals, referred to as ‘frequent flyers’, are a cost burden to the system.”

Searcy says, “A major challenge is going to be getting the word out to the lawmakers and getting the resources reallocated. We want to get the homeless out of motels and into housing. It’s a working solution.”

The data will help local leaders better understand the cost of homelessness in their cities, allowing them to budget plans that fit the need.

Steve Greyshock, a communications consultant for the ACC-OC says homelessness is a complex problem for cities.

“There’s not one solution, every city is different,” says Greyshock. “On any given night there are as many as 15,000 homeless people in the county. We are faced with a time-consuming process to acquisition cost data but we are working with the cities to identify the buried costs. We hope to use the data as a springboard for local government to see if they can boldly tackle this problem and embrace it.”

The United Way of Orange County has funded a large portion of the study and also reports some alarming numbers of homelessness throughout the county.

Over 1,000 Orange County children live in motels and 26,000 school age children are considered homeless or housing insecure in the county. At 5.2 percent of total school enrollment, Orange County has more students facing insecure housing than the California statewide average.

One of the fastest-growing segments of the homeless population is working families with children, struggling to make ends meet and families living double or triple with other families.

Recent homeless estimates around the Santa Ana Civic Center alone have crept up to nearly 500. It has raised health and safety concerns for local politicians. The county is trying to expedite its efforts to open shelters to ease the problem but the process is costly and time consuming.

Snow says the study is being conducted on a tight budget, “but the partners are driven by passion to help correct this issue.”