The latest homeless count in Orange County revealed a surprising statistic: There are more unsheltered homeless people in the beach cities than in the northern or central parts of the county.
The unsheltered homeless are people who sleep outside of any homeless shelter including in vehicles; "beach cities" is being used here to describe Orange County's 2nd supervisorial district.
The district stretches 112 square miles from Los Alamitos at the Los Angeles County border (including the small city of La Palma) southward, ending at Newport Beach. Seven other cities make up this piece of Orange County: Stanton, Cypress, portions of Buena Park and Fountain Valley, Seal Beach, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.
* During the statistical process, the count from this area was added to the weighted count from all the other areas, according to the Orange County Homeless Count & Survey Report.
"It’s nicer out here," says Dylan Rodeski, a tall, 22-year old who calls the wetlands and beaches in Huntington Beach home.
Rodeski says he's been homeless, off-and-on, for more than four years. Sometimes he sleeps on a concrete bus bench along Huntington State Beach because the park closes at 10 p.m.
"It’s beachfront property," he jokes.
"You wake up to the waves and stuff," Rodeski says. "That’s one of the reasons I like to stay out here."
The Point-In-Time Homeless Count & Survey is a snapshot of how many homeless people are living in Orange County on one night. While it is an inexact science, it’s the best available estimate, and government officials use the count to help identify which services are needed and where.
The survey's discovery of so many unsheltered homeless in the 2nd supervisorial district surprised many officials, including Officer Brian Smith, the unofficial homeless liaison for the Huntington Beach Police Department. At the same time, Smith says the department has been getting more calls about homeless people hanging around.
"We have noticed a marked increase, at least in the city of Huntington Beach, with unsheltered homeless individuals," Smith says. "Namely in our downtown, and our local park and open space areas."
Smith says most of the homeless people he meets in Huntington Beach are locals like Chris Kearney, 51, who has lived here all his life.
"I’m doing the surf bum thing," Kearney says. "I grew up here and I just can’t get away."
Others come from inland. Dylan Rodeski used to live in Garden Grove with his mother until he became homeless at the age of 18. He tried living on the streets in Santa Ana but the density and crime turned him off, he says.
"You go to Garden Grove or Anaheim or anything like that you, you leave a backpack somewhere, it’ll be gone within five minutes," says Rodeski.
Some of the homeless in Huntington Beach live in RVs, Smith notes, adding that they will buy a state parks pass so they can park in the beach parking lots during the day and use beach showers and bathrooms.
Because the beaches close at 10 p.m., Smith says homeless people living in RVs or on the beach tend to become nocturnal, roaming and keeping mobile at night.
Old RVs are easy to spot driving around Costa Mesa or Huntington Beach, but there do not seem to be any large or dense homeless encampments out in public view.
Caption: A 60-year old homeless man living in his RV at a park in Costa Mesa who declined to give his name said the search for homeless requires a trek down into the park trails and open spaces. There’s a place he calls "The Jungle" where a few homeless people have set up camp. Photo: Erika Aguilar/ KPCC
There are very few emergency shelters in the beach cities area, and they are reserved for homeless children and for young adults and homeless single mothers.
Adult men with no children, who make up a significant portion of all of Orange County’s 2,201 unsheltered homeless, would have to travel to Santa Ana, Fullerton or Anaheim for emergency shelter. There is a shelter in Laguna Beach for residents.
There are no emergency homeless shelters in Costa Mesa, says Rick Francis, the city's assistant CEO. "People find little places to hide out that are off the beaten path, out of the way," he says.
While acknowledging the need for a shelter that would serve adult men, Francis raises the specter of NIMBYism.
"Would it be a good idea? Possibly," Francis says. "Would it be tolerated? Possibly not."
While he’s not offering Costa Mesa as a venue, Francis says he has been talking to his counterparts in neighboring cities about possibly partnering on a shelter.