Housing the Homeless
by John Pyun
Orange County is the home to many beautiful and popular locations such as Disneyland and Angel Stadium, and has been the setting for many popular television programs such as “The OC” and “Laguna Beach” that display the luxurious life of Orange County residents. However, the darker truth not shown on the “reality television” shot in the OC is that Orange County is also the home of over 34,000 homeless people. A homeless person is defined by the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 as “An individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” How is it that Orange County, with over a third of households reporting an annual income of over $100,000 has a “homeless population [that] is one of the largest in America, trailing only Los Angeles and New York,” according the Los Angeles Times.
Of the many cities in Orange County, Santa Ana was ranked first in “urban hardship” in a study conducted by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. Santa Ana is one city among many that has a large homeless population. Every week at the Santa Ana Civic Center, close to a hundred individuals line up to receive a breakfast sandwich, chicken soup. and some hot coffee.
One wonders what factors have contributed to the homeless problem in Orange County. The rise in homelessness in Orange County and particularly in Santa Ana is largely due to a lack of affordable, low-income housing as well as a negative public perception of the homeless as criminals or drug addicts.
While many think of the homeless as voluntarily homeless or victims of their own laziness or vice, this is simply not true. In a study conducted by the Urban Institute in 1999, only 9 percent of the homeless surveyed cited substance abuse as their largest barrier toward exiting homelessness. A study conducted at NYU also confirmed these results in a five-year study of 564 homeless families. The researchers found that despite various personal difficulties among the homeless, “these problems [were] not what drove most of them into homelessness” and that when provided with subsidies to help afford housing, “80 percent of these formerly homeless families remained housed…for at least a year.” The biggest problem facing those who are homeless and desire to exit homelessness is the lack of affordable low-income housing and this problem is actually a bigger issue in Orange County than in other areas.
One of the root issues of being unable to afford housing is the problem of joblessness in California. Many of those who are homeless and desire to find work simply cannot. As of March 2010, unemployment was getting worse and was at a staggering 10.1 percent in Orange County. Darnell, Glenn, and Jesse are three of the homeless who spend their time at the Santa Ana Civic Center. When asked about the biggest challenges to their exiting homelessness, they all cited the lack of work opportunity: “Find me some part-time work or full-time work. I’ll take it. I’ve been looking two years and ain’t found shit.” Glenn agreed, saying, “If we can get work, we’ll be okay.” Jesse shared his own experiences: “I came out here [to Santa Ana] because I was looking for work and couldn’t find nothing. Been here since.” The 2009 Orange County Homeless Census and Survey also found “that 30% of homeless individuals surveyed cited job loss as their primary reason for homelessness.” In this tough economic climate, joblessness is a reasonable cause for the rise of homelessness. Yet, this leaves the question of the factors that have led to homelessness in the other 70%.
Survey data released by the Housing and Community Services Department of Orange County found that a majority of the homeless surprisingly work full-time jobs; however, the average income of these jobs is less than $10 and hour. Along with the low income of these jobs, the disparity between income and housing costs continues to grow in Orange County with “Orange County’s housing market being one of the most expensive in the nation.” In fact, in 2008 the price an Orange County home was seven times than of a median priced American home. With the housing as costly as it is, the average homeless person working at minimum wage “would have to work 152 hours per week to rent a two-bedroom apartment.” This is, of course, an impossible task, and therefore we must look toward affordable housing as a solution.
The government standard for low-income housing “is that it should cost not more than 30 percent of the annual income of someone in poverty.” However, there is limited availability of such housing for primarily two reasons. The first is that “low income housing does not make very much money for its landlords.” With little incentive to lower the price of rent, it is no surprise that in 2009 the US Census Bureau reported that over 44 percent of renters in Orange County spent 35 percent or more of their household income on rent alone.” The county does acknowledge that affordable housing is a large part of the solution to homelessness with Goal 5 of their “Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness” that was accepted in early 2010 being to “develop permanent housing options linked to a range of supportive services.” However, one must question the county’s urgency and effective striving for such a goal. At present, both the Orange County Housing Authority and the Santa Ana Housing Authority, two large organizations meant to assist those in need to find housing, are not accepting applications or even pre-applications for assistance through Housing Vouchers.
The second reason for the lack of affordable housing and the lack of homeless assistance agencies such as shelters is the negative perception of the homeless. People fear that the increase in poor or homeless in their neighborhood, through the building of aid facilities or affordable housing units, will drive down property values. Therefore, they create local laws and zoning requirements in an attempt to strike down any such projects. This fear is often called the “Not In My Backyard” or NIMBY effect. The NIMBY effect, in conjunction with the high value of urban land, has led to less homeless shelters and low-income housing where they are needed. In 2004, there were only enough shelter beds to house less than half of the street homeless population and the number of shelters in the county has since decreased. According to Karen Roper, Orange County’s homeless coordinator, “Some 70 percent of the proposed homeless shelters in the county are successfully blocked by communities.” However, according to Lois Takahashi, an assistant professor at UC Irvine, “the fears of those residents couldn’t be further from the truth. After extensive research, she found that property values do not go down around facilities for the needy.” It is often just the false public perception that the majority of the homeless are vagrants and addicts that may lead to such opposition.
The lack of affordable housing and shelter has been a large contributor to the problem of homelessness in Orange County, but the question remains as to why there is such a large population of homeless people in Santa Ana and specifically at the Santa Ana Civic Center. One reason is that there are many services for the homeless in the area. When asked about how he came to find himself at the Civic Center, Glenn explained: “You hear about the different services: unemployment office, train station, shelters. At the time the Rescue Mission was open all year round, and that was nice. If you were working, you could spend a few months there.” Among the aid services in the area are the Isaiah House and the Mercy House that work in conjunction with the Santa Ana Armory to provide temporary emergency housing in the winters. Also, there are various religious and social service groups that regularly visit the Civic Center to provide meals for those in need.
Another cause of the large number of homeless people in Santa Ana is the large immigrant population, “the nation’s second-highest number of foreign-born residents,” with the Urban Institute estimating that one-fourth of residents are undocumented. An undocumented workforce is often underpaid and the mixture of the large, underpaid immigrant workforce living in an area with the same high Orange County housing prices is a recipe for homelessness.
Homelessness is a problem that must be addressed. It is easy to get wrapped up in statistics and figures but one must not forget that what we are really talking about are real individuals who are suffering on the streets. Often the homeless are left with no alternative but to live on the street, and yet they face many challenges daily from the city or law enforcement as they are ticketed for “unlawful camping” or “illegal storage.” It is much too easy to ignore and look past the real human need that is in our own neighborhoods or to justify inaction by persuading ourselves that the homeless are there due to their own addictions or by choice. However, we must not forget how, after a few unfortunate events, we might find ourselves in a similar situation. It is a privilege to have the opportunity and resources to help provide support for a fellow human being.