Judge Pressures Orange County Officials on Homelessness Issue

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge said he expects all city mayors and city managers from Orange County, California, to attend a hearing next week to finalize a “holistic plan” on emergency shelters for the county’s homeless population.

The burden of designing and implementing a plan to provide comprehensive care and shelter for the homeless must be shared by all cities, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said at a status conference Friday at the Ronald Reagan Courthouse in Santa Ana.

Carter, who is presiding over two federal lawsuits regarding the county’s homeless, said he is “willing to be tolerant” of the pace county officials and city leaders have set in providing support. But he criticized the county for “decades of neglect” and failure to spend at least $187 million in county funds designated for mental health services.

Public notices papered the Civic Center Plaza in Santa Ana Friday, informing homeless people no “camping” would be allowed beginning April 2.

County health workers in tandem with law enforcement are scheduled to begin removing homeless people from the Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza of the Flags and bordering areas surrounding the plaza next week.

Carter’s hearing on the issue is set for April 3.

Carter said he wanted the clearing of the plaza to be conducted “with dignity and humanity.” He told Santa Ana Deputy Chief Ken Gominsky that people who “transgress the law” should be jailed.

“I have no mercy about that,” Carter said. “For people who need assessments, you will find them adequate places to stay.”

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told Carter the homeless population in and around the plaza numbers approximately 206.

Those removed from the plaza will receive health assessments and referrals for shelter before they come into contact with law enforcement for removal. Gominsky told Carter this could take up to a week.

Carter said he would not set a hard deadline on the process.

Advocates for the county’s homeless population filed a lawsuit in late January claiming the county violated the rights of people living at the Santa Ana Riverbed encampment by failing to provide adequate health services and temporary housing.

Carter halted the riverbed removals and helped broker a deal to house almost 700 people in nearby motels at the county’s expense. Many of the encampment residents struggle with substance abuse, as well as mental and physical health issues.

Richard Sanchez, director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, said the process of providing care requires a complex intake process to determine both the level of need and interest in attaining health services.

Sanchez said people who are homeless and in need of immediate care for substance abuse aren’t always willing to cooperate with a care plan – that both complicates and protracts the process. He said it takes time to establish trust with people to get buy-in for a care plan.

Navigating health insurance can be another hindrance for homeless people supported by HCA staff because to be reimbursed for drug detox treatments, HCA must often go outside county lines.

Sanchez said HCA staff are patient where others may not be.

“We will continue this work long after the trial,” he said.

As the homeless population’s motel vouchers expire, county officials must scramble to find enough beds for those in need of shelter.

In the absence of political unity around a county plan to care for the homeless, Carter has provided the urgency to solidify an approach to immediate and long-term homeless care.

Phil Bacerra, a Santa Ana planning commissioner, said he is interested in how cities across the county will respond to Carter’s mandate for change.

The issue of homelessness crosses “geographic and political lines in the county,” Bacerra said, adding that he is glad Carter “forced the county’s hand” on formulating a plan.

“The option of not taking any action is not on the table,” Bacerra said.

But Orange county cities are not all on board with the county’s temporary housing plan.

On Wednesday, the Costa Mesa City Council adopted a resolution against turning a former state mental health building, the Fairview Developmental Center, into a homeless shelter. The cities of Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel announced lawsuits against the county for its proposed plan to construct emergency shelters in the three cities.

A complaint filed Monday by the City of Irvine accuses county officials of voting on a plan to house the homeless without engaging city officials or residents on concerns over security and sanitation.

It also claims county officials never completed environmental impact studies and failed to provide crucial logistical details for transporting homeless people to Irvine.

The county’s original plan called for 200 beds or tents in Irvine, and 100 each in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.

Amidst the backlash from residents, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to scrap its plans to shelter homeless people removed from nearby encampments.

Carter said he was “anxious to hear from” Orange County mayors about whether they would be “stepping up” in support of a countywide plan. He said “anyone within earshot of this court” should tell their mayors and city managers to attend Tuesday’s hearing.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said the Santa Ana City Council earlier in the day had directed its legal staff to explore “suing all the cities in the county” to bring them to the court.

Carter told Pulido no legal action would be necessary.

“I’ll be ordering them in,” Carter said.

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