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Orange County homeless deaths set record in 2020


As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped Orange County, homeless residents had few places to turn.

Shelters have faced coronavirus outbreaks and a lawsuit for sexual harassment and inhumane conditions. Project Roomkey, a statewide program that placed homeless Californians in hotel rooms, was called overly restrictive by advocates who said the hotels and shelters were being run like prisons.

As a result, more homeless people died in Orange County in 2020 than any other year, according to the coroner’s office.

The 330 deaths are a reminder that the pandemic has repeatedly struck the most vulnerable in the community. In 2019, just over 200 homeless people died in Orange County.

“It’s sad because there are more shelters now than before,” said Father Dennis Kriz, an advocate for homeless neighbors and pastor of a Fullerton church. “But, it’s also like some of what was built now doesn’t work as well.”

People sit on a red curb in front of a curbside window where people pick up food

Father Dennis Kriz, in all black, sits in front of a food pantry at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton.

(Christine Cotter)

Every month on the Voice of OC, Kriz publishes the names and stories of homeless people who have died. He also used to allow a homeless encampment on his church’s grounds despite opposition from parishioners.

Kriz said Orange County and its cities haven’t done enough to keep homeless residents safe from the virus.

“It just seems that they continue to not see this as a serious issue,” Kriz said. “And it’s just a shame because, again, I really do think if they really took it seriously … they could have this thing solved.

“But instead they’re catering to maskless crazies arguing that they want their kid to go to the prom, and you got 150 extra deaths on the street due to homelessness.”

Late last month, the Voice of OC reported that 16 homeless shelters in the county have had outbreaks.

Tim Houchen, an advocate who was once homeless, said he thinks the streets are now safer for those who live there, although that may be an unpopular opinion.

Houchen said that when he was homeless, he was uncomfortable being at shelters surrounded by sick people.

“Now these congregate shelters, nobody wants to go to them,” he said. “If I was back on the streets homeless again, I wouldn’t want to go to those shelters.”

Houchen organizes a Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day event annually on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year, to honor homeless people who have died. The event was held virtually last month.

Houchen was recently elected to the Orange County Continuum of Care’s board of directors, which develops and implements strategies to address homelessness in the county. He also founded the nonprofit Hope 4 Restoration.

A man holds a stack of brochures and smiles for a photo

Tim Houchen every year organizes a Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day to honor those who have died in Orange County.

(Tim Houchen)

Many of the deaths on the coroner’s list are due to drug overdoses and traffic injuries. Five of the deaths are listed as being caused by COVID-19. About 90 of the individuals have causes of deaths listed as pending investigation, natural causes or left blank.

Houchen and Kriz said many of the deaths are directly and indirectly related to the pandemic.

With many public bathrooms closed, Houchen said, hygienic issues could be causing more illnesses.

“Then you have guys that are going to the bathroom too close to where they sleep, and where others sleep,” Houchen said. “And they’re not washing property between going to the bathroom and when they eat. That definitely has an effect on the homeless as far as their hygiene goes.”

Kriz said some homeless people are afraid to go to hospitals due to possible exposure to the virus. Now, as hospitals are being inundated by COVID-19 patients, people may be even less inclined to seek help for health issues, and some hospitals may not have room.

Houchen said outreach efforts and other services that were available to homeless residents before the pandemic have been reduced.

Because opioids, particularly fentanyl, are responsible for many overdoses among homeless people in Orange County, Houchen believes the lack of available outreach and resources contributed to the high number of deaths.

“A lot of services and a lot of the resources that they had before were just completely wiped out single-handedly by COVID,” Houchen said. “I know that we have a really big problem nationwide, not just among homeless people, with opioids, particularly fentanyl. And I think a lot of these deaths probably are resulting from that.”

A brick walkway leads up to white cemetery building

Memorial boards listing the names of homeless Orange County residents who died in 2020 sit outside at Anaheim Cemetery.

(Tim Houchen)

Houchen and Kriz believe the county’s official tally of 330 homeless deaths last year is an undercount.

In past years, Houchen added names he had independently verified to the coroner’s list of homeless people who died. In 2020, he didn’t add any because the pandemic prevented him from getting out on foot to verify other deaths.

“It’s an undercount almost certainly,” Kriz said. “But it’s the only count we have.”

Advocates have been concerned about a rise in homeless deaths since the early months of the pandemic.

Kriz and other activists held car rallies to call on Orange County to do more for its homeless residents.

The county’s current plan includes transitioning from Project Roomkey, which has largely ended, to Project Homekey, another state initiative that entails purchasing and rehabilitating hotels, motels, vacant apartments and other buildings to house people experiencing homelessness.

The county has purchased a hotel and a motel so far. The former Stanton Inn & Suites began operating as interim housing in late November. The second site, the former Tahiti Motel, is being rehabilitated and is expected to begin operating as an interim site in mid-February.

Jason Austin, director of the county’s Office of Care Coordination, said homeless individuals in the Project Roomkey program were transferred to next-step housing options through the county’s Project Toolbelt program, which includes rooms for rent, board and care homes, sober living homes, room and boards, permanent housing, shelters and motels.

The current operations of Project Roomkey are limited to providing isolation to homeless people who have tested positive for the coronavirus or show symptoms of COVID-19, Austin said.

As the pandemic continues into the new year, Houchen said one of the issues he plans to take on in 2021 is the lack of information the coroner’s office provides when a homeless person dies. He said he’s followed up on cases that were pending for more than a year without updates.

“The truth is, we don’t get the data that we really need from our coroner so that we can make important determinations, so we can make adjustments to how we provide services and resources to the homeless community,” Houchen said.

Below are the names of homeless people who died in Orange County in 2020, according to a list provided by the coroner’s office. The list includes four stillborn babies and one unidentified man.

Homeless people who died in Orange County in 2020:

Adrian Ceniceros
Jeffrey Emerson
Charles Black
Eligio Flores
James Fulghum
Lafi Burgess
Jesus Espinosa
Arthur Romero
Kenneth Clark
Rashawn Squire
Faith Rosales
Isidro Aparicio
Michael Potchka
Morgan Brombal
Colin Willis
Donny Van Why
March Reddick
Mark Montanez
Malik Shwiat
Michael Cernak
Alberto Alcauter-Perez
Vidal Reyes
Harold Bell
Jacob Solomon
Bill Baldwin
Julie Sashkin
Michael Mcnatt
Jerome Howard
Douglas Marx
Paul Burton
Monteray Ruiz
Robert Mckinley
Steven Malinowski
Ronald Schenk
Joseph Araujo
Rueben Kronstedt
Mafi Taumoefolau
James Galvin
Robert Jenkins
Antoine Villa
Kenneth Olsen
John Moore
Arthur Cuin
Laura Peery
Cristobal Navarro Munoz
Joseph Ruelas, jr.
Hector Carrillo
Daniel Dreis
Marcia Eaton
Richard Lopez
Michael Davenport
Tyler Gotch
Michael Brown
Michael Armstrong
Kevin Newberry
Kathryn Morris
Fred Rodriguez
Arturo Hernandez Jimenez
Ric Hale
Valentin Rodriguez
Anntanette Brown
Michael Finnerty
Andrew Brosnan
Long Nguyen
Charles Taylor
Daylene Bunch
Diana Maldonado
Daniel Hoffman
Michael Tokars
Stevi Crothers
David Portney
Rose Kelley
Rudy Sanchez
Jerry Gross
Mark Swanson
Thomson Vo
Michael Nyhus
Martin House
Todd Megna
Mario Porres
Rick Davis
Ruben Magdaleno
George Acevedo
Miguel Jimenez
Elizabeth Nealon
William Trudgeon
Mario Crumpacker
Samantha Kilburn
Tuan Nguyen
Noe Garcia
Emily Jones
Linda Grajeda
Richard Comfort
Cheryl Leonard
William Mcguckie
Steven Martin
Samuel Balch
Gerard Kelly
Brian Eschbach
Patrick Lynaugh
John Younggren
Edward Janssen
Alvin Wendlandt
Robert Hackett
Kenneth Connel
Andrew Concepcion
Matthew Nickolescu
Paul Malott
Michael White
Jose Chacon
Patrick Prendergast
Manolis Tsarnas
Tuong Nguyen
Alexander Carillo
Carolyn Tate
Marie Tate
John Dilworth
John Lingua
Sawyer Pawlik
Mario Armento
Michael Gilreath
Tricia Gonzalez
Hiep Truong
Jonathan Lemaster
Theodore Contreras, jr.
Geoffrey Power
Veronica Valenzuela
Randall Wallets
Barry Jackson
Christopher Johnsen
Ronald Woolley
Robert Figueroa
Jeffrey Antes
Abel Roberto
Bernal Tellez
Lorraine Herrera
Jose Salgado
Timothy Schoch
John Ream
Roxanne Rios
Jeffery Byrd
Abul Kalam
Bruce Stovall
Geraldine Oremus
Victoria Hodges
Francisco Torivio Penaloza
Robert Simpson
Angel Jimenez
David Stame
Daniel Lopez
Jeremy Mathis
Kevin Gowdy
Francisco Quintanilla
Joseph Drake
James Lobnow
Nibardo Navarro
Hector Mena
Ernesto Mota
George Christiano
Obede Ferreira
William Rye
Sean Richards
Felipe Moreno Jimenez
Anthony Matos
Jose Serrato
William Powell
Infant male (Gomez)
Michael Cocuzzi
Sky Kincaid
Ramon Madrid
Teresa Felker
Guy Sinclair
Ralph Finch
Rafael Morenopiceno
Minh Nguyen
Esteban Azpeitiacallejas
Robert Parsons
Aimee Vetere
Christopher Schiller
Lindsey Lofstrom
Eddie Fabela
Robert Harding
Elizabeth Platipodis
Colleen Zehfuss
Marcel Do
Myra Curry
Daniel Mcneley
Cesar De la Rosa Garduno
Milvia Schinaia
David Lindemuth
Jorge Cervantes Garcia
Jennifer Finney
Nathan Woodruff
Derrick Golightly
Michael Tutwiler
David Kim
Angela Demyers
Scott Barnes
Rhonda Hodges
Shawn Ficquette
Ryan Villanueva
John Sisolak
Gustavo Gasper
Randall Powell
Douglas Morentin
Jeff Jerue
Chase Christopher
Melvin Walker
Chela Long
Danny Mckrill
Jay Cox
Donald Muckleroy
Austin Moore
Tymisha Gray
Paul Gill
Louis Reed
Lee Meszaros
Alexa Cook
Roberto Cuevas
Steven Anderson
Infant male (Goin)
Vincent Cisneros
William Routledge
Brenda Foster
Miguel Varela
Andrew Holman
Manuel Bautista
Martha Valle
Ryan Gable
Donald Tapparo
Thien Nguyen
Elstephon Noah
Ramiro Benitez
John Aranda
Jose Anaya
Melinda Huyette
James Romey
Michael Gomez
Jason Desilva
Kurt Reinhold
Kevin Porter
Charles Slater
Van Nguyen
Camilo Enriquez
Trisha Woodward
Michael Eisenhauer
Chad Kizzar
Tyler Lopez
Carlos Perez
Jennifer Habib
William Bewley III
Donald Welch
Merry Watanasrimongkol
Joyce Mcadoo
Matthew Mckinney
Ricky Delgado
Heather Rheuby
Steven Borboa
Jose De los Santos
Steven Wiatt
Faith Reynolds
James Vasquez
Donna Valadez
Dionicio Ramirez-Ortega
Conrad Rieger
Jonathan Rawlings
David Monge
Anthony Gonzales
Paula Ford
Kristofer Miller
John Nguyen
Daniel Delgado
Ronald Whitecotton
Derek Dougherty
Daniel Mayhew jr.
William Castillo
Ignacio Maldonado
Christopher Jones
Damond Miller
Leonard Romero jr.
Carissa Ortiz
Robert Garza
Luis Hernandez
Nicholas Melanson
Roger Brooks
Infant male (Tostado)
Bruce Johnstone
Michael Derushia
Priscilla Salinas
Dakota Hansen
James Keech
Stacy Mendes
Jerry Piper
Larry Kichler
Esmail Farzanehkari
Gustavo Constancio
John Doe #187
Paul Taylor
Andrea Berkis
Miguel Ruacho
Gerardo Ruiz Chavez
Randy Constant
Jose Ramirez
Michael Ortiz
Matthew Torres
Antone Kaleel
Jeffrey Villarreal
George Glendenning
Juan Sanchez
Jason Motis
Charles Molfese
Robert Johnson Jr.
Daniel Smith
Adam Giavelli
Ruswuel Castellanos
Felisha Hernandez
Daniel Reddy
Karen Mitchell
Michael Muensterman
Jaima Fawcett
Robyn Stewart
Janie Devries
Alexandria Fody
Rou Chung
Alan Downey
Ramon Lopez jr
J. Refugio Muniz
Robert Geddes
Veronica Blake
Michael Matthews


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