The number of homeless people who died in Orange County spiked in 2015 compared with previous years.
Last year, 181 people who died in the county were listed as having “no known abode” by the Orange County Coroner Division. That was a 45 percent increase from 2014, when the county recorded 125 homeless deaths, and a 53 percent jump from the 118 deaths in 2013.
Those people died on streets and in public places such as strip malls, the Santa Ana riverbed, the armories, train and bus stations, parked vehicles and railroad tracks. Some died in hospitals, others in motels and other people’s residences.
The coroner’s figures, initially cited in a news report earlier this week by KPCC public radio, troubled but didn’t surprise those who work closely with the homeless.
“When I saw that, it kind of validated what we have been saying: The county is not realizing they have so many sick people out there,” said Paul Leon, a public health nurse who heads up the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides health care and housing services to the homeless.
The county’s homeless population was estimated last year to be about 4,500 people, and Leon expects the death rate in that group to continue to rise.
He said people now on the street tend to be sicker than in past years, with the most vulnerable suffering from chronic illnesses, mental health issues and substance abuse.
“There are less providers actually serving this population; 2016 is going to be way higher,” Leon said.
Karen Roper, director of OC Community Services, was more optimistic. She noted that recent efforts by the county to help the homeless have intensified and that more services could help decrease the homeless population in the coming year and beyond.
She cited expanded outreach and assessment, a year-round shelter expected to open in December, and more permanent housing that includes supportive services.
She said such services “will help us to safely move chronically homeless and medically fragile homeless from the streets to shelter and housing.”
Larry “Smitty” Smith, who lives in Santa Ana’s Civic Center and is involved in the Civic Center Roundtable homeless activist group, said there are more deaths because the county has underestimated the number of homeless overall.
“You have twice as many people as they say.”
Smith also pointed out a key shortage that affects the homeless and others with low incomes in Orange County.
“There is no housing,” he said.
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