Local News

United to End Homelessness Virtual Town Hall

There are 7000 people experiencing homelessness in Orange County, with about 2900 in shelters and 4000 unsheltered. On Thursday, April 30, OC United Way presented a webinar that was live-streamed on Facebook, which sought to explain how Orange County is dealing with homelessness during the COVID-19 crisis.

Lilly Simmering, Assistant Director at OC Health Care Agency, said that the most prevalent response from the County has been Project Roomkey, funded with $150 million from Sacramento and FEMA for non-congregate shelter living, aimed at providing housing for the homeless in hotel rooms. As of April 30, the County had 545 hotel rooms available, with two hotels for those who are sick/symptomatic or recovering from COVID-19, and three hotels open to “at risk” people, those 65 years or older, or those with underlying medical conditions.

Additionally, the County opened the Joplin Shelter which has a maximum capacity of 100 beds. Currently there are 44 sick/symptomatic and 112 vulnerable people in the hotels, and 20 in the Joplin Shelter. Project Roomkey accommodations are accessible only through referral by shelter providers, hospitals, law enforcement, and outreach teams such as Illumination Foundation and Mercy House.

Dawn Price, CEO of Friendship Shelter and member of the OC Continuum of Care Board, discussed the two Friendship Shelters in Laguna Beach. One is a single room where everyone is on a mat on the floor. The other shelter is a dormitory with 3-4 people per room. “We are trying to keep people ‘at home’ in these shelters,” Price said. “We have increased hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Staff and guests are wearing masks. The big challenge is social distancing within congregate shelters, so we are trying to decrease the number of those staying in shelters.”

She said they have changed the way they provide meals from potluck to handing out plates, in order to limit contact. “Coping with mental health is challenging,” Price said. “Chronic mental health conditions are becoming more difficult to manage. Two folks in our shelter had symptoms of COVID-19. We called Illumination Foundation who took them to one of the hotels. They tested negative and were transported back to our shelter.” She said the shelters need cleaning supplies, sanitizer, and meal volunteers.

Whitney Ayers, Regional VP of the Hospital Association of Southern California, said that OC is at only about 60% occupancy in hospitals; however, of interest is the increase in new homeless people who are sick and accessing hospitals. One in three homeless people coming into the hospital have some kind of mental illness such as alcohol-related use disorders, schizophrenia, or other psychotic disorders. 90% of them have chronic disorders that need appropriate management. There is a 20% decrease of homeless coming into the hospitals overall; however, of the 80% that still are coming in, many more than usual are needing to be hospitalized for longer terms. Major factors are psychosis, cellulitis, heart failure, and septicemia. Hospitals are not designed to provide a therapeutic recovery environment, which is what this population requires.

“We have been reliant on county, state, and national stockpiles which has been problematic for us,” Ayers said. “We need shoring up of local stockpiles. Regarding adequacy of testing environments – we waited on federal guidelines to know who to test– but locally we’re trying to do better. We can reopen the economy when we have more tests. There has also been a shortage of swabs and other things.”

When asked about what the County has learned from this experience, Simmering said, “Now we know we need to be better prepared moving forward. To make assumptions of people by sight is careless because you don’t know if they have underlying conditions or not, so writing them off in that way is inappropriate. With Project Roomkey we have a model of how we can move forward to make the physical health of the homeless better, so we can be more innovative. We have been so focused on the mental health, we are seeing more than ever that physical and mental health considerations are both required.”

“We have learned that housing is the better approach than shelters. If you have 4 walls and a roof, you’re better off and we’ve learned this over and over during this episode,” Price said.

Steve Churm, Chair of the OC United Way Board, said, “We are proud of our homeless prevention program, piloted by United Way, and funded by the pandemic relief fund. We have helped 800 households with direct financial assistance, $500 per household.” He said they will build upon this presentation in future sessions and answer more questions.

To learn more visit www.unitedwayoc.org.

I have some follow-up questions for them:

Why is Orange County allowing three-foot distancing of beds in shelters, such as in the new shelter in Placentia?

When will all guests and staff in shelters and those on the street be tested for infection? You can’t tell if they have been exposed based on symptoms alone.

How can sanitation facilities be provided to unsheltered people? They have no toilets to use, or places to wash their hands.

Why are only 21% of the hotel rooms being used while thousands of people remain unsheltered? Why aren’t more hotels being used?

Why are people over 65 years old staying in the encampment in Stanton while they are already known to police?

Why can’t vulnerable people on the street get into Project Roomkey?

OC more recently received over $500 million in federal CARES act funding which can be applied to COVID-19 related issues for homelessness. How can that money be used in addition to state and FEMA funding applied to Project Roomkey?

How can the former Fairview mental hospital be used to shelter people?

What will happen to people experiencing homelessness after the COVID-19 emergency declaration ends? It’s time to consider long term plans now–something with four walls and a roof.

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1 reply »

  1. Why are homeless persons being forced out of areas where they are camping out even when they are secluded or on Cal trans property? They can’t move their belongings by themselves and need help if they are being “thrown out.” What can they do or say to law enforcement when confronted to move? What defense do they have?

    A mother of a homeless son.

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