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High Unemployment, Low Wages Drive Growing Homeless Population In Imperial County

Imperial County leaders speak about the region's homeless population, May 11,...

Photo by Susan Murphy

Above: Imperial County leaders speak about the region's homeless population, May 11, 2017.

Imperial County's Homeless Population Has Tripled Since Last Year


Susan Murphy, reporter, KPBS News


Imperial County’s homeless population has tripled compared to last year, driven in part by high unemployment and low wages, according to a report by the Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council.

Countywide, nearly 1,100 homeless people were tallied during the annual count taken in January, up from 380 homeless people counted last year. All of the additional 691 people were sleeping outside on the streets.

County leaders gathered Thursday to unveil the sobering new numbers at the region's Catholic Charities, a nonprofit on West Orange Avenue that provides food, shelter and services to those in need.

Imperial County's homeless population is now twice the state average, according to the council. Deborah Owens, assistant district attorney, also credited the higher numbers to a more thorough count and an increase of volunteers who conducted the census.

"The reason that I think we are hesitant to say, 'Yes there are more homeless people,' is that this point-in-time count is based upon a coordinated effort and volunteers, and before, it was difficult to get volunteers in terms of that coordinated approach," she said, "so when Nancy says, 'We are not saying this is triple the number of homeless people,' we believe because of tripling the amount of volunteers we've been more effective in grasping that snapshot."

Imperial County’s homeless population has tripled compared to last year, driven in part by high unemployment and low wages, according to a report by the Imperial Valley Continuum of Care Council.

The majority of homeless, 943 people, were found sleeping on the streets — in tents, under bridges and on park benches. Meanwhile, 128 people were staying in shelters — the same number as last year.

The staggering rise in the unsheltered homeless population is a trend seen throughout Southern California. In San Diego County, for example, the unsheltered homeless population increased 14 percent over last year, while in the city of San Diego, the number of tents and handmade structures soared 104 percent.

“This issue is complex, but we know that working together we can end homelessness in Imperial Valley,” said Deborah Owen, assistant district attorney of Imperial County. ”We need greater funding and resources to make this successful though.”

A survey of homeless people living in Imperial County found nearly 26 percent of unsheltered adults had suffered from mental illness, and nearly 20 percent reported a substance-use disorder. Veterans accounted for 11 percent of the homeless population.

Nearly half of unsheltered adults were chronically homeless, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as someone with a disability who has been continuously homeless for a year or more.

More than 12 percent of respondents said they had been discharged “from a facility/institution in the last 30 days,” with jail or prison accounting for the majority.

Imperial Valley is located in the southeastern corner of California, bordering Mexico and Arizona. Blistering summer temperatures often top triple digits, and rainfall rarely exceeds 3 inches. Many of the region’s 180,000 residents have long depended on agriculture and cash crops for income, including alfalfa, spinach, potatoes and broccoli. Other top employers include wind and solar farms and two large state prisons that together detain 7,300 inmates.

The region carries the highest unemployment rate in the state, with nearly 20 percent of people unemployed, according to a March 2017 report by the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Statewide, the unemployment rate was 5.1 percent and the national average was 4.6 percent.

Nearly 25 percent of the county’s residents live in poverty, with the annual median household income at approximately $41,000.

County officials are working to implement a Coordinated Entry System to direct homeless people to essential services. “By directing them to the one place they need to go versus a trial and error method of knocking on a variety of doors to end in the right place,” the report states.


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