By Shelley Hoss
Published in the Orange County Register on April 1, 2013
Orange County’s surprising problem often hides in the shadows.
When you think of the homeless in the United States, what – and who – comes to mind? Transient men in inner cities? The chronically addicted? The mentally ill? Would it surprise you to know that, in 2011, 1.6 million homeless Americans were children, or that Orange County puts up some of the highest numbers of homelessness in the nation?
One startling fact is this: Orange County has more homeless, and children living on the edge of homelessness, per capita than either Los Angeles or San Diego counties, according to the California Department of Education (December 2011). And families with children make up 70 percent of Orange County’s homeless population.
Although this heartbreaking reality remains largely hidden from view, these children and families are here, living in the shadow of some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the country—in decrepit motels, parked cars, or dangerously exposed in public spaces.
According to a 2011 report in USA Today, the worst states for homeless children were those hardest hit by foreclosures and unemployment, as well as states with the greatest income disparity—like California. And Orange County (tied with Riverside/San Bernardino counties) has the highest percentage of unstably housed children in the state.
“We often don’t think of Orange County as an area rife with homelessness because we don’t see them as readily,” says Kim Goll, director of program operations at Children and Families Commission Orange County. “And one of the primary contributors is the high cost of living.”
An undeniable illustration of this, as cited in “Our Orange County,” a report on social issues commissioned by the Orange County Community Foundation, is that a person earning minimum wage must work 133 hours per week – the equivalent of more than three full-time jobs – to afford the rent on an average one-bedroom apartment in Orange County. Half of all adults living beneath the poverty line in Orange County are employed.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that there are thousands of families who are one paycheck away from homelessness in Orange County,” Goll said. “The loss of stable wages during the recession put low-income families in an increasingly perilous position and, from there, it can be a devastating slide. Getting work is of course much more difficult if you don’t have a permanent address and children can end up moving from school to school, if enrolled at all.”
One of the key strategies being implemented to stop this slide is “rapid re-housing,” or quickly getting families into permanent shelter to prevent them from falling further behind. Two Orange County organizations at the forefront of this movement are Illumination Foundation and Mercy House.
Illumination Foundation, based in Irvine, has an innovative outreach program that helps families receive stable housing, medical services, mental health counseling, case management and life essentials such as food and clothing. It also helps with the transitional issues such as employment assistance.
Santa Ana’s Mercy House offers similar assistance, including a “continuum of care” that helps individuals and families at every stage of homelessness, from prevention to emergency housing to permanent housing.
Larry Haynes, Executive Director of Mercy House, says solving the issue of homelessness “will take time,” but “long-term and consistent support allows nonprofits to be both creative and more efficient.”
For more information visit ConnectOC.org.
Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation.