Orange County Leaders Meet to Discuss Homelessness Fix

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Facing a federal judge’s deadline Wednesday to identify locations for three sites for emergency shelters for homeless residents, Orange County leaders unveiled five sites that collectively would provide at least 700 shelter beds.

U.S District Judge David Carter set the deadline as part of a mandate that county leaders approve sites for shelters in each of the county service areas – north, central and south – in order to immediately house homeless residents.

According to a count by county officials in Jan. 2017, there are currently more than 4,800 unsheltered individuals living in the area, though advocates say the number is likely much higher.

Carter has said repeatedly he believes the burden of designing and implementing a plan to provide comprehensive care and shelter for the homeless must be shared by all 34 cities in the county.

A trio of protest signs lean up against columns outside the Ronald Reagan Courthouse in Santa Ana where Orange County leaders met on Wednesday, June 14, 2018 to identify proposed sites for emergency homeless shelters. One sign reads “Housing is a Human right” while another says “Shelters are not Housing.” (Martin Macias Jr/CNS)

At a packed courtroom in Ronald Reagan Courthouse in Santa Ana, Carter said he doesn’t want unsheltered individuals “pushed from one region of the county to another.”

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, who said his city has been “inundated” by challenges to house the homeless, proposed a site that would provide at least 200 shelter beds in the central region. The site would operate with the mission of transitioning individuals into permanent housing units tied to health services.

Pulido said he is in advanced talks with U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein about potential state funds that would match county funds that provide services specifically to individuals with severe mental illness.

Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Jose Moreno proposed three smaller sites spread throughout the northern region that would provide at least 325 shelter beds. The sites would feature a mix of emergency intake operations, temporary housing and “bridges” to permanent housing units tied to health services.

One of the city’s proposed sites is sponsored by a collection of private sector business leaders in Anaheim.

Moreno said Anaheim is developing policies to prevent residents from becoming homeless in the future, such as expanding access to the current stock of federally subsidized public housing.

The current waiting list of residents seeking public housing vouchers is over 33,000, Moreno said.

Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey said his coastal city is a “magnet for homelessness.”

Posey proposed a site that would provide 75 shelter beds. He also mentioned a second site but did not submit it as an official proposal to Carter.

The exact addresses for each proposed shelter site were not revealed.

The court went into recess, allowing for city-by-city negotiations on support for the proposed sites. A final list of sites was not approved by Carter by press time.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a $930 million spending plan to construct at least 2,700 units of housing for the homeless. The units will come with health and social services attached to them.

Funding for the project will come from a mix of state funds, community development block grants, federal loans and housing development funds.

The state budget for next fiscal year includes $500 million in funding for cities to develop emergency housing and homeless prevention services such as rent support.

In order for the county to receive some of this funding, it must declare a homelessness crisis and demonstrate that it is coordinating with cities on a plan to provide a solution, according to a statement released by county officials Tuesday.

Board Chairman Andrew Do said the funds have only been proposed “but funds can be uncertain.”

Do said the county will need to construct another emergency shelter as the 400-bed Courtyard Shelter is currently the county’s only one.

The housing plan – which Do called “monumental and revolutionary” – has a price tag per unit of roughly $300,000 for single adults and $425,000 for family units with support services attached.

The county’s plan lists a capital funding gap of $353 million.

That funding stream won’t arrive all at once and the units would be built over the course of seven years, according to former Orange County official Dan Young.

When pressed by Carter on how many units could be built within a year, Young said 1,000 units.

Young, a former mayor of Santa Ana, has been lobbying the Legislature for approval of AB 444, which would give the county authorization to form a joint powers authority to lobby the state for potential tax-revenue funding that could be approved by voters in November.

If passed, SB 3 – a bond measure put on the Nov ballot by the Legislature – would provide $4 billion for affordable housing projects.

The joint powers authority, according to the bill, would create the Orange County Housing Trust, a body that would regulate land use and fund housing projects for homeless residents and low income residents. It wouldn’t own any property or supersede any city’s housing authority.

Participation in the joint authority would be voluntary for each city however, and no city would be obligated to pay into the trust, Young said. Those that sign up could access the funding.

“The [joint powers authority] would allow [cities] to have a seat at the table to receive $930 million,” Young said, who also added that the county is pushing the Legislature to pass the bill by Aug. 30.

Do said the county’s housing plan is part of a effort to climb out of a worsening homelessness crisis and prepares for any future increases in homelessness.

Since 2013, the county has experienced a 53 percent increase in unsheltered homeless residents.

Many have sought shelter over the last five years in public and private areas such as the Santa Ana riverbed and the Orange County Civic Center.

Carter is presiding over a pair of federal civil rights lawsuits regarding homeless people who previously occupied the riverbed encampment and another camp at the public plaza in Santa Ana.

As part of an agreement in the lawsuit, county officials removed residents of the encampment on Santa Ana River Trail and temporarily housed them at nearby motels and hotels.

Advocates want the county to ensure that the homeless are either placed into shelters, connected to permanent housing or provided access to health services.

Carter has had to step in – often using unorthodox methods – to broker agreements between the county and cities in order to arrange appropriate housing for the homeless.

He has said he wants to avoid having to issue a temporary restraining order – which would deny cities the right to enforce anti-camping ordinances – so that a collective plan could be constructed.

He has also said repeatedly that homeless people who break the law should be sent to jail, though he said the process operates under the” idea that homeless people should not be criminalized simply for being homeless.”

Carter has allowed work in addressing the housing needs be done with expediency, often bypassing Americans with Disabilities Act compliance regulations in order to meet the needs.

He’d previously criticized county officials over the “decades of neglect” on creating a comprehensive homeless policy and failure to spend an estimated $187 million in recently uncovered county funds which are under designation for mental health services.

Carter said last month that Wednesday’s hearing would be the last meeting of its kind before he would have to use his authority to prevent cities from enforcing anti-camping ordinances and anti-loitering laws.

Cities must come to an agreement soon due to a looming July 16 deadline. That’s when the county’s two armory shelters will close for the season. Once they close, homeless residents could migrate into neighboring cities and back into encampments.

Not all advocates for the homeless left Wednesday’s hearing feeling confident that further negotiations will lead to “holistic and positive outcomes” for the county’s homeless residents.

Margaret Sharpe, an advocate for the homeless, said the 2,700 units proposed by the county won’t house all the homeless people that need housing.

Sharpe, based in Costa Mesa, said county officials should support policies that will prevent residents from becoming homeless such as rent control and living wage ordinances.

“Cities in these cases are focused on shelter beds, but that doesn’t mean you’re done with your responsibility to these [homeless] residents,” Sharpe said. “We have to ask ‘What are the greater needs of the community?’”

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