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OC's homelessness problem is bigger than the Santa Ana riverbed — much bigger

Homeless people stand in line on Feb. 20 to get motel vouchers in exchange for vacating the Santa Ana riverbed.
Homeless people stand in line on Feb. 20 to get motel vouchers in exchange for vacating the Santa Ana riverbed.
Jill Replogle

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When motel vouchers were being passed out to homeless people on the first day of Orange County’s effort to clear homeless encampments from the Santa Ana riverbed, some in line had been sleeping elsewhere: in cars, on friends’ sofas. Not at the riverbed. 

Sophia, 28, was one of them. She held her sleeping, 1-year-old son while her 6-year-old sat in the shade with her ex-husband.

“I lived in my car for a month, then my uncle took us in,” she said. Most recently, she had been sleeping in an emergency shelter for families. 

Her story illustrates the fact that Orange County’s homeless problem is much bigger than just the riverbed, where at least 400 people had been living in arguably the county's highest profile encampment.

But on any given night, nearly 5,000 people go without permanent shelter, according to the 2017 Point In Time homeless count.

A few miles away from the riverbed homeless encampment, more than 100 people camp nightly in Santa Ana civic center. 

Even more alarming, OC school districts identified 27,000 homeless kids in the 2016-2017 school year, the most recent available data, a number that includes kids whose families are doubled and tripled-up in cramped apartments. More than 2,800 of those children lived in shelters, motels or on the streets.

Shortly after the riverbed clearing got started on Tuesday, several county officials complained that homeless people were being dropped off from elsewhere, confounding workers’ attempts to find shelter for all riverbed residents, whose estimated numbers range from 400 to 1,000 people.

Many of those not on the county's list of known riverbed campers were offered a bed in one of the county’s emergency shelters. Some, including Sophia and her family, were eventually given a motel voucher. 

Some advocates for the homeless who have been monitoring the riverbed clearing said the county should help all homeless people who show up needing assistance, not just those on the county’s list. 

“A lot of these cities aren’t taking care of their own backyards and making sure that people have affordable housing,” said R. Joshua Collins, who heads a group called Homeless Advocates for Christ. “So we’re going to have to work together to make this problem go away. We can’t just ignore it anymore." 

OC’s homeless czar Susan Price said Thursday that the flow of outsiders hoping for motel vouchers had tapered off and that the county was well on its way to meeting its goal of clearing the riverbed by the end of the week. 

“Initially it did slow us down,” she said. “But we’re right in the heart of the encampment now, and we know the people that we’re working with."

She said the riverbed clearing is a chance for the county to show what it can do to address what many considered the toughest population to help. 

“I want to see the system expand and wrap its arms around the people who want help,” Price said. 

She acknowledged the county’s lack of affordable housing is still a major challenge. But she said county officials had recently put a call out to OC cities to develop 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing for all the county's homeless over the next three years.