North OC Commits to 700 New Homeless Shelter Beds; South County Identifies Zero
SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC
By Nick Gerda and Thy Vo
Three north Orange County cities committed Wednesday to adding a total of 700 new homeless shelter beds at specific sites – on top of the more than 1,000 shelter beds already in north county – but south county mayors didn’t identify any additional shelter sites.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter two months ago called on south county cities to identify and develop additional shelter beds, and gave them until Wednesday to identify locations. But at the court meeting Wednesday, south county city officials said they had not yet identified any shelter sites.
After more than two hours of private discussion, where Carter pressed mayors to find one or more sites for shelter beds in south county, Irvine Mayor Don Wagner said the mayors had made “no decisions” on sites, but did receive “more clarity” from Carter.
“I think [the south county mayors] are committed” to finding an additional shelter site or sites, Wagner told Voice of OC Wednesday evening. “I think the judge is going to insist on it.” The mayors see industrial park areas as making the most sense for shelter beds because they’re not near schools or parks, Wagner said, acknowledging “you don’t have a lot of those in south county.” The south county mayors plan to meet in about two weeks to discuss the issue further, he said.
South county currently has fewer than 100 emergency shelter beds for single homeless men and women. Carter has been presiding over a federal civil rights lawsuit about a shortage of homeless shelters in Orange County. He has repeatedly said Santa Ana and Anaheim are doing more than their share to host shelters and services, and that Santa Ana has been “inundated” with homeless people because of a lack of shelter options elsewhere in the county.
On April 3, Carter called on other parts of the county – particularly south county – to each take care of their “proportional” share of the county’s homeless population. And at a May 25 court meeting, Carter gave the cities until Wednesday, June 13 to identify locations for three new emergency homeless shelters, and said the hundreds of homeless people who have been staying at the county’s two armory shelters need to be accommodated when the armories close July 16.
Carter commended Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Huntington Beach for committing to the 700 new shelter beds. The judge and a law clerk wrote the cities’ names on a large poster paper and whiteboard in the courtroom, along with the number of beds each city committed to.
Carter said city officials had provided him the specific locations of the shelter sites. But he would not disclose the locations, saying he was respecting the cities’ request to keep the locations confidential as discussions proceed.
Under state law, cities will be required to make the shelter locations public before city councils vote to purchase property for a shelter or allow existing city-owned property to be used for shelter.
The new shelter commitments were:
• An extra 300 beds in Santa Ana: replacing the 400-bed Courtyard shelter with a new 700-bed facility. Santa Ana currently has more than 600 shelter beds.
• An extra 325 beds in Anaheim: a 75-bed shelter, 50-bed shelter, and a 200-bed shelter in a building owned by businessman Bill Taormina. Anaheim currently has 200 shelter beds.
• An extra 75 beds in unincorporated Midway City: 55 beds in one shelter and 20 in another nearby, as part of a joint funding arrangement with Huntington Beach and Westminster. Midway City currently has 20 shelter beds.
“We are extremely serious about it,” Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said of the Santa Ana City Council’s view of the proposed 700-bed site. “Nothing is going to stop us. We are ready to proceed forward and move as quickly as we can on that.”
Carter said the proposed Santa Ana location is a “great site” near services, in an area where it would not have “much of an impact on residential communities.” He said the facility would help free police officers to enforce crime instead of spending time responding to homelessness issues.
There is no timeline for opening Santa Ana’s proposed shelter, but Taormina said the proposed shelter on his property in Anaheim could be open by the end of this year.
“We can do the 200-bed facility in Anaheim by New Years’ Eve, so we can all go there and have a party,” Taormina said. “I want to thank [attorneys] Brooke [Weitzman] and Carol [Sobel] for bringing this to the court,” because now “we have a catalyst” to get this done, he added. “We need to prevent anarchy” on our streets, Taormina added.
Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey said one of the expanded-bed facilities in Midway City will be opening in 90 to 120 days, and the second in six to nine months. Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Jose Moreno told Carter his City Council is “prepared to move forward” with all three proposed sites in his city. One of the sites, he said, would be a “75-bed emergency center” where police, non-profits and faith-based groups can collaborate with the city in helping homeless people move off the streets.
Going forward, Moreno said, he and other members of the city’s Homeless Policy Working Group are looking to build 50 to 75-bed shelters in each of the city’s six council districts, so no single district is doing more or less than another.
Repeatedly during Wednesday’s meeting, Carter dangled the prospect that specific cities would be dismissed from the civil fights lawsuit, through settlements, once they commit to additional shelter beds and handle intake for their homeless population.
As for funding, Carter said enough money already exists for new shelters and housing and no new taxes are needed. “I firmly believe that the money’s there,” Carter said, adding the issue really is finding sites. Carter, as he has in the past, emphasized repeatedly that he wants to make sure cities are not pushing homeless people from city to city.
Cities elsewhere in the county have transported homeless people to the Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana, which is the county’s only walk-in homeless shelter for single men and women, according to Carter and security video disclosed by Santa Ana.
Undersheriff Don Barnes, speaking during the court meeting Wednesday, said the Sheriff’s Department continues to face a lack of places to take homeless people they encounter who have serious mental illnesses.
“[Our] behavioral health system has collapsed in California. And those solutions have to be addressed,” Barnes said. “The challenge we have is tangible resources. Where do we take [people to get them into the] system of care?” asked Barnes, calling it the department’s “greatest challenge” with homelessness.
Carter commended the Sheriff’s Department for providing homelessness training to certain deputies who interact with homeless people. But Carter said the days of transporting people from south county to Santa Ana are over. Referring to Barnes and the Sheriff’s Department, Carter said: “He can’t bring them to Santa Ana. He can’t bring them to Santa Ana!” Carter said again, raising his voice. “We’re done with that. It’s too impacted.”
Carter also said he would not be rigidly enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at shelters, which is the subject of one of the lawsuits he’s presiding over related to the Santa Ana River evictions.
“For the women in this audience, I don’t know…what county allows our women…to be exposed to the degradation and sexual abuse that you hear walking up and down the river,” Carter said. Referring to the ADA lawsuit by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, whose lead attorney is Lili Graham, Carter said: “I’ve shoved Lili off.” “I’ve pushed her off for one reason,” he added. “It’s better [that women have a safe place to sleep in a shelter] than being raped or sleeping with a taser.”
At the court meeting, county officials highlighted an action by county supervisors Tuesday to approve a business plan for funding 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people. The plan estimates the total cost at $930 million over the next six years. A UC Irvine cost study last year found the total cost to the public is cut in half when homeless people who have been living on the streets for more than a year move into permanent supportive housing.
In his public remarks in court on Wednesday, county supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do emphasized the county would not force shelters on any cities. “The county shares your concern – the county doesn’t want anything to be forced on people,” Do said. If it’s a “mandatory” process, “people will find loopholes around that,” Do said, saying cities should think of it as “a collaboration. Because it is.”
Do said the county needs one more emergency shelter with at least 200 beds and two new emergency mental health treatment centers, known as “crisis stabilization units.” He said there is only one such facility in the county, in Santa Ana, which has just 10 beds. Do also said the county needs 2,700 supportive housing units, spread across the county.
The supervisors on Tuesday authorized the first $13 million for mental health housing out of the $70.5 million in additional Mental Health Services Act funding they designated in March for housing homeless people with serious mental illnesses.
That first $13 million will fund 99 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people with serious mental illnesses, within 11 projects that have a total of 451 housing units, according to county officials.
AB 448, a state bill to create a joint powers agency of city and county officials to pool together financing for the housing, is moving quickly through the legislature, said Dan Young, a former Santa Ana mayor and Irvine Company housing development executive who has been involved in the effort.
”This is a bill that puts the cities at the table. You have a seat at the table for $900 million-worth of money,” Young said. Cities are “not required” to join, but can only access the funds if they do join. As for the county’s funding plan, Young said: “That becomes the business plan for how you get your 2,700 units done.” He added there’s “a lot of work to be done on that business plan.” Carter said he wants “specifics,” including a timeline.
Young said the first 500 housing units would be available in six months, which would double to 1,000 within the next year. Young said polling shows California voters are likely to approve $4 billion in additional funding for homeless housing and other homeless programs, under a measure known as Senate Bill 3, which the legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown placed on the November ballot.
The proposed joint-powers authority would be a place for county and city officials “to collaborate,” Young said. He said legislators in Sacramento have said Orange County’s chances of getting funding for the 2,700 proposed housing units are “excellent” if OC moves quickly to implement its plan.
Carter said the courthouse discussions of homelessness Wednesday started at 5:30 a.m. The public discussion ran from 8:42 a.m. to 11:01 a.m., then Carter spent another 8 ½ hours in rounds of meetings with officials about homelessness. Around 7:30 p.m., the last discussions apparently ended, and Carter let court security go home.
During Wednesday’s court meeting, Carter responded to pushback from some city officials who have cast doubt on whether he has jurisdiction to block enforcement of anti-camping laws. Carter said he believes he has jurisdiction to issue a temporary restraining order banning any city in Orange County from enforcing anti-camping and loitering laws against homeless people, under the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Jones v. City of Los Angeles.
The Jones decision found government cannot “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless,” such as sleeping on public sidewalks, when there is a shortage of adequate shelter beds. The judge also said he believes an upcoming appellate ruling before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, which apparently is being written by Justice Marsha S. Berzon, will strengthen the Jones decision even further.
Carter apparently was referring to the pending decision in the case of Robert Martin v. City of Boise, which was argued before the Ninth Circuit last summer and centers on anti-camping enforcement. Carter said he could have issued the restraining order in Orange County months ago, but that he’s been waiting to see how much progress can be made in developing a system of care for homeless people.
Carter also said the other federal judges in the regional court district – the Central District of California – have handed the issue of homelessness to him.
“I humbly went to all of my colleagues and I said because of [an earlier Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp case in 2017, and other cases], that “I’m happy to take on the homeless issues.” “And my colleagues” very graciously said “take it,” Carter said, prompting laughter from the audience. “We’ve got consistency now in the federal court.”
As for questions about Carter’s age and health – he is 74 years old – Carter said: “I’m very healthy,” adding he expects to live until he’s 110.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.
Voice of OC reporter Spencer Custodio contributed to this report.