NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The picturesque coast of Newport Beach has long remained insulated from homeless travelers and panhandlers, but in recent years, things have changed. Weathered figures carrying bags filled with bottles and cans have emerged beside the city’s fashionable restaurants and marinas.
City officials recently announced a 50% reduction in the homeless count, a number that’s more a guideline than a hard figure. Homeless populations are notoriously difficult to record accurately, with many moving among cities instead of staying put.
Newport Beach was among the least prepared to manage a homeless population but has since assigned staff and crafted policy to manage people living in its alleys and parks.
Joy Brenner, the city’s council member representing the 6th District, expects the problem to grow. And officials around the county worry about the potential for increased evictions in a stalled economy. Many city revenues have suffered deep reductions as sales tax money has slowed to a trickle. Many restaurants have seen profits halved, and the move away from brick and mortar retail has only accelerated.
Brenner and others worry those deficits will expand homeless populations at a time when financial flexibility is limited.
As homeless rates swell, the sustained coronavirus pandemic has renewed concerns over the homeless rate.
Brenner said she used to refer to public meetings on homelessness as "public stonings" but said residents have slowly come around.
"You could tell how much anger there was,” she said. “That situation, it just had to diffuse. People had to vent, and they did. And then I think they saw we were working as hard as we possibly could.”
The city has been looking into building housing for the homeless, enough space for about 50 units, complete with a system designed to move people out into apartments of their own, or the spare room of a friend or family member. But some, Brenner said, may never be equipped to leave.
The problem is making contact.
"They don’t trust anybody, and they’re not going to trust somebody who comes up to them and says 'I’m here to help,'" Brenner said. "It takes a long time to build trust."
The city has contracted with City Net, a nonprofit mainly working in Orange County. City net provides social workers who make contact with homeless people in an effort to gain trust and eventually provide services.
But getting people into the system is difficult because many have fallen out of it. Chelsea Bowers, a spokeswoman for City Net. Bowers said the homeless are often not in the same place and lack basic documents essential for securing services like health care or unemployment. Many living in homeless encampments don’t even have social security cards or driver's licenses.
“It’s just a season of adapting and thinking about where the pandemic is going to lead us and affect the population,” she said.
Newport Beach has been partnering with Costa Mesa on a temporary basis but has made plans to cooperate on a bridge shelter for about 70 people, of which Newport Beach would have about 20 spaces.
Costa Mesa has had to do more budget gymnastics to keep balanced and still has import needs, like additional paramedics, it cannot fill. The city has also identified rent insecurity as a potentially growing threat and has allocated hundreds of thousands in additional dollars to a rent protection fund. The program would allow eligible applicants to draw a maximum of $6,000.
Andrea Marr, a Costa Mesa city council member, said partnership is key.
“It doesn’t make sense for 34 cities to have 34 homeless shelters,” she said.
While the pandemic rages on and infection rates in California have returned to exponential growth, reassuring signs exist. Progress on vaccines has continued at an unprecedented rate, and some sectors of the economy have seen moderate rehiring. But total recovery may be far off, even once the pandemic passes.
“We’ve seen some data that suggests that those who are making less than the median have not recovered,” Marr said.