Business & Economy

SoCal counties lack homeless shelters for families

Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon stands in a newly opened homeless shelter for families in Stanton.
Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon stands in a newly opened homeless shelter for families in Stanton.

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As winter temperatures dip, officials in Los Angeles and Orange county say there is not enough emergency shelter space for homeless families.

Orange County has 1,123 emergency beds in total, according to Orange County Community Services. The agency did not immediately know how many of those beds are accessible to families. Service providers in the county said it’s nowhere near enough.

Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon said in Anaheim alone, there are 800 homeless people. Half are members of families with children.

“I would estimate 1,500 to 1,800 families who are living in parks and beaches,” he said of the countywide numbers. “You go to any neighborhood in Orange County, you’ll see people living in their cars.”

Similarly, Los Angeles has identified emergency housing as one of its “largest gaps of funding” for homeless families, according to a county report released Thursday.

In L.A., which served 3,505 clients in its family solutions system in the past fiscal year, there are 332 crisis housing units for families. In addition, the county spent over $2 million on motel vouchers for families in the 2015-2016 fiscal year to make up for the lack of shelter space.

That, said Phil Ansell, director of the county’s homeless initiative, is a far from an ideal scenario.

“They’re more expensive,” he said of motel vouchers. Furthermore, he said, speaking at a county meeting Thursday, "motels don't have the connection to services that a shelter has.”

They also are more of a day-to-day stopgap rather than a relatively stable place for families to settle in while they look for permanent housing.  

L.A. is toying with the idea of renting out entire motels for longer periods and providing some services on site, Ansell said.

Orange County has also started to look into fixes. The county’s Children and Families Commission granted the Illumination Foundation $554,000 to expand a house in a Stanton neighborhood. A donor purchased the home to make it a nine-bedroom emergency shelter for families. 

Theriault Emergency House, which opened weeks ago, is already filling up with families, Leon said.

He said the new shelter can house families together, instead of splitting them up by gender in the large, dorm-like settings that are a hallmark of regular shelters. Other family shelters require an application process or screening to get in, which takes about three days. Theriault Emergency House is available immediately, so when social workers see a homeless family out on the street, they can get them into the shelter that night.

“That can literally be the difference of life or death, unfortunately,” Leon said.

Leon, a former public health nurse, said when he worked for the County of Orange Health Care Agency, he would frequently encounter homeless parents and kids, but had nowhere to send them for shelter, which was demoralizing and dangerous.

"It was terrible," he said. "I would see a sick child with a temperature and not anywhere for them to go."

Theriault Emergency House will actually recruit families who use the public health system at a high rate. CalOptima, which manages Orange County's Medi-Cal system did an analyses of its records and counted 10,000 homeless patients in the system, about 1,000 of whom heavily utilized emergency rooms in the county. 

Of those thousand, 147 were infants, said Paul Cho, the organization's chief financial officer. 

"What we want to do is take these families after they've been treated, come here, and we'll continue to work with them, get them stable," he said. 

That means access to ongoing medical care, behavioral health counselors, and a path to permanent housing.

"To have children to be the most frequent homeless users of our E.R., that is just not acceptable," Cho said.

If the organization can demonstrate cost savings to the public health system through the program by cutting down on emergency room visits, he said, that could pave the way for more funding for more shelters and housing for families.