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By Shawn Raymundo
Upon arriving for work the morning of Jan. 28, the head of San Clemente’s senior center began to make her rounds, cleaning the exterior of the building. It was in front of the facility where she discovered the body of a homeless man whom she’d known for years, lying motionless.
She had reached to check for the man’s pulse, merely to confirm what she had already suspected before calling 911.
“I knew (he was deceased) even before I did it,” Beth Apodaca, director for the Dorothy Visser Senior Center, recalls, describing the ordeal as “disturbing.” “I called 911, they asked if he needed CPR, and I said no.”
After receiving the call at approximately 7:48 a.m., deputy sheriffs arrived at the center, where authorities pronounced the 73-year-old Steven Richard Riley dead, according to Sgt. Dennis Breckner, public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Though the autopsy has been completed, it’s unclear how Riley died, with the cause of death still pending, Breckner said on Monday, Feb. 8. He noted that there was nothing suspicious reported by deputies at the scene of Riley’s death.
Riley’s death follows the staggering trend of high mortality among the homeless in Orange County this past year, when there were 330 individuals who had died, compared to the more than 200 homeless deaths recorded in 2019, news outlets reported.
Citing the data from the coroner’s office, Breckner says two of those deaths occurred in Dana Point, while five homeless deaths were reported in San Clemente this past year. As for San Juan Capistrano, there were no reported homeless deaths in 2020.
At 73, Riley was also among the elderly subpopulation of homeless living in Orange County. Those seniors, aged 62 and older, made up roughly 9% of the 6,860 homeless individuals accounted for in 2019—when the last biennial count of unsheltered persons occurred.
A Snapshot of the County’s Homeless
Every couple of years, near the end of January, local volunteers join homeless advocacy groups across the state for a single night to tally unsheltered individuals living on the street, providing a snapshot, or window in time, of the area’s homeless population.
The count, conducted every odd-numbered year, is intended to provide government agencies and lawmakers with the necessary data to guide legislative policy, funding allocations and planning to address homelessness.
However, with the pandemic still raging, last month’s unsheltered count, led locally by the nonprofit agency City Net, has been canceled by a majority of the state’s Continuums of Care, including Orange County’s.
A Continuum of Care, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s program for communities to coordinate responses to end homelessness, is a regional or planning body that coordinates housing, services and funding for homeless families and individuals.
Though California’s Continuums of Care, or CoCs, are encouraged to reschedule their counts in 2022, barring any more setbacks related to the public health crisis, the delay in counting the unsheltered homeless could mean lawmakers rely on outdated data until 2023.
“There are lots of uses for the data,” City Net Vice President Matt Bates explains.
Such uses, he says, inform cities and Service Planning Areas (SPA) of their local impacts and what their needs should be. It also provides agencies and service providers with demographic data to aid in their response and outreach on homelessness.
“One of the biggest (uses),” he adds, “is to establish funding allocation (and) distribution guidelines for money that enters the Continuum of Care.”
Asked whether the absence of the unsheltered PIT Count this year is likely to pose any consequences, Bates says, “Probably not immediately,” though adding that the county’s CoC “will likely continue to rely on the distribution percentages from 2019 until a new PIT is completed.”
By the Numbers
The report from the 2019 PIT Count found that the county’s homeless population had risen sharply by roughly 43% over the two-year period. Accounting for both sheltered and unsheltered, the total homeless population recorded at the time was 6,860 individuals—up from the 4,792 recorded in 2017.
Much of the homeless population resided in the county’s central region, which accounted for 3,332 individuals. The North County tally was 2,765, while South County had a homeless population at the time of 763.
In San Clemente, the county reported a population of 145 homeless individuals, 96 of whom were recorded as unsheltered. As for Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, the count found 32 and 62 homeless individuals, respectively, residing in the neighboring towns.
Gary Walsh chairs the city of San Clemente’s Joint Homeless Subcommittee, comprising members from the city’s Human Affairs Committee and Public Safety Committee, of which he is an appointee.
He tells San Clemente Times this month that he didn’t see the downside in not holding the biennial PIT count, citing his experience participating in the 2019 event, which he found to be ineffective down here.
“It seems to me the PIT count is somewhat designed for cities with homeless who sleep in tent cities—a lot of them in areas where there are a lot of sidewalks. And the Point-in-Time data that they had us gather, it was really restricted to that,” he says, noting that in San Clemente there’s a considerable contingent of homeless who sleep in more remote areas.
Acknowledging that volunteers are restricted to certain areas, Bates explains that participants are provided with maps that differ from person to person and represent various areas of the city that the agency and law enforcement feel comfortable allowing people to explore.
“We gave them the maps that had been vetted through law enforcement,” Bates says, adding: “It’s true that when you’re assigned a map, we want you to use that map and not wander, even if you have an idea of where there might be other homeless, because you might be in someone else’s map and double counting.”
Walsh says the delay could be used by agencies to gather input on where to make improvements for future counts.
If there’s one aspect of the biennial count that the county’s CoC has been looking to rethink or adjust, Bates says, it’s how to accurately count transitional-aged youth (18- to 24-year-olds) who are experiencing homelessness.
Ahead of the 2019 PIT count, the county’s CoC made the switch to a survey methodology, rather than using the observation methodology that had been previously employed.
The difference, Bates explains, is volunteers under a survey approach are able to speak with the homeless, asking them various questions to get additional information and sub-category data, whereas an observation-based count requires volunteers to simply hand count those on the street.
The observation approach, he adds, is “statistically valid, but Orange County wanted to conduct a survey-based count where you try to interview because you get more information—personal information and local information.”
However, when it comes to transitional-aged youth, attempting to count them through observation in places such as community colleges is far from accurate, as appearances can be misleading. And as for surveying them, they’re unlikely to self-identify as homeless or self-stigmatize, Bates says.
“It’s a tricky proposition … you have to engage a different methodology,” says Bates, who sits on the county’s CoC board, and adds, “I can speak confidently for the CoC that that’s an area in OC where we’re going to be looking to further improve the count.”
Exiting the Streets
For years, Riley had been known to sleep outside of the senior center, Apodaca tells SC Times. Despitehaving been off the street for about a month, she says he reappeared at the senior center the Sunday before his death.
“Time on the street takes its toll on everybody,” Apodaca says, noting that outside of the senior center is where many homeless are known to rest their heads at night. She explains that Riley has “been here living out front for a while,” remembering him as “cantankerous, but he was our cantankerous guy.”
“He was just a gruff guy,” she elaborates. “People will tell you, when they walked their dogs, he was always nice, engaged with everyone, but he was gruff.”
According to Breckner, homeless liaison officers with OCSD had met with Riley multiple times over the years, dating as far back as 2016 and as most recently as early December. Riley, whose last known address was in San Clemente, had been offered services “but declined or was not eligible.”
Margie Riley Lofgren, Riley’s younger sister and currently an Oregon resident, says she had been coordinating with Cathy Domenichini of iHope, a faith-based nonprofit assisting the homeless, to get Riley into permanent housing.
“He finally agreed to get help, because he was tired of living on the streets. (Domenichini) was trying to get him off the streets, to get permanent housing,” Lofgren says, adding: “We’re just devastated because we were so close—so close to getting him permanent housing.”
Sheltering in Place
While CoCs are required by HUD to hold an unsheltered count every other year, they continue to count the homeless living in shelters on an annual basis, also at the end of every January.
In 2020, the county reported a sheltered homeless population of 3,017, an increase from the 2,899 recorded the previous year. Among the sheltered homeless population, most—a total of 1,110 people—were staying at emergency shelters in the Central SPA.
Touching on one silver lining of the pandemic as it relates to the county’s homelessness woes, Bates says that agencies in Orange County’s CoC, including City Net, have had “their hands full with the current opportunity presented by COVID-19.”
That opportunity, he says, “is that there are shelter and housing availabilities for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of homeless neighbors that did not exist previously.”
Amid the pandemic this past year, the state has led efforts to set up more temporary housing opportunities for the homeless as a method of curbing the spread of the coronavirus—an initiative referred to as Project Roomkey.
Since December 2019, City Net has been the city of San Clemente’s contractor for homeless outreach services. In that time, 53 homeless persons have worked with City Net to exit the streets of San Clemente and get into housing, according to the agency’s latest monthly report from December 2020.
However, Brad Fieldhouse, executive director and founder of City Net, previously explained to the San Clemente City Council that the number of homeless on the street is a moving target.
That monthly report shows that outreach staff have been actively engaged with about 30 homeless individuals in case management, meaning they’ve been going through the steps of getting those persons into some form of housing.
Between December 2019 and December 2020, City Net made a total of 2,395 contacts with homeless individuals in San Clemente—including both duplicated and unique individuals—according to the same dashboard report.
Accounting for only unique individual contacts, the agency has averaged about 69 contacts a month since May 2020, when City Net began tracking such data.
Among those interactions over the past year, roughly 60 of them were between Riley and City Net staff, according to Bates. The last time an outreach worker had met with Riley was on Jan. 26—just two days before his death.
Bates says the agency had been working extensively with Riley since February 2020, when outreach workers first engaged with him in San Clemente. Since that time, there were 60 in-person interactions, as well as another dozen phone calls.
“It’s a sad story. I can say that not all of that time he was homeless. There were times he was enrolled in various housing options,” Bates says, adding: “As you can imagine, based on the 60 interactions, this was a client that we were really working hard to connect to a housing shelter.”
Lofgren says funeral arrangements for Riley are still being settled. Locally, a vigil in honor of Riley is scheduled to take place on Tuesday evening, Feb. 16, outside of the San Clemente Community Center, where the city council will meet.
Donna Vidrine, who ran in San Clemente’s special election for city council last fall, is organizing the event to increase calls for the council to provide shelter for the homeless sleeping in the elements.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.