SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Mayors from cities across Orange County and members of the Board of Supervisors met at Ronald Reagan Courthouse in Santa Ana Tuesday under a federal judge’s invitation to “proportionally” distribute the work of creating short-term and long-term housing for the county’s homeless.
U.S District Judge David Carter invited the mayors and city managers from all 34 cities to participate in an unorthodox, court-supervised negotiation between leaders to identify potential sites for transitional housing, which could mean shelters, and permanent housing for the homeless population.
Carter said elected officials in the county could either “take leadership and address the crisis as a community” or wait for the court to produce a judicial solution.
“History will write about this and learn what kind of community we are,” he said.
Elected officials blamed years of neglect and mismanagement of county funds for the crisis the county finds itself in.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said he was also guilty, adding that the city hasn’t done everything it can to fully meet the needs of the county’s homeless.
“We’ve had a broken system that brought us to present day conditions that are intolerable,” he said.
Michele Martinez, mayor pro tem of Santa Ana, said her city has “beared the brunt” of the homeless crisis, and that both residents and business “have had enough.”
Santa Ana is “not wealthy like South County,” she said. “All I’m asking is for all of us to do our fair share.”
Mayor Tom Tait of Anaheim said it will take “kindness and love” to meet the needs of the homeless, though the question of how to fund solutions must be taken seriously.
“Cities don’t really have money for this,” he said. “Every penny we spend comes from money pulled away from fire or police.”
Last month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to spend a combined $90.5 million of county funds originally earmarked for services for people living with mental illness to provide permanent housing for homeless people.
County officials also said there are $2.5 billion in state funds allocated for mental health services, of which Orange County could receive at least $211 million, according to a state audit shared at the hearing.
A county official also said at least $100 million is slated to be raised from Orange County “legacy families” towards a countywide housing plan.
Adding to the mounting urgency in the ongoing homelessness crisis, converted military shelters may release up to 400 homeless people who will need housing as soon as April 7 according to Carter.
Under a county emergency shelter program, National Guard Armories provide shelter and services for the homeless during winter months.
He told city leaders he doesn’t have jurisdiction over their cities but could still initiate judicial intervention, likely by blocking cities’ anti-camping ordinances, if he didn’t see appropriate action.
“You’re the mayors, the city leaders who have tremendous power to decide on whatever your communities need,” Carter said.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do said homelessness is a countywide issue that no city could evade responsibility for.
Certain cities, Do said, are unwilling to place homeless shelters in within their boundaries. He said to meet the challenges ahead, cities would need to work with their residents to agree to “share the burden.”
“When I proposed [a shelter in Santa Ana], [Santa Ana] didn’t bring hundreds of people to protest or to say there would be a recall and they didn’t sue us,” he said.
“With each passing day we betray our responsibility to support all county residents,” Do said.
David Duran, a member of Housing is a Human Right Orange County, said he agreed that “some cities are doing their fair share” but that overall it was not enough.
Duran said he is optimistic a countywide resolution will surface through court-supervised negotiation but remains uncertain it will arrive “in time” to meet the growing needs of the homeless population.
He is part of a volunteer effort to support homeless residents, especially those currently living it motels through county sponsored vouchers. Duran said many of the homeless staying at motels received “inadequate” assessments by county officials and were granted extended stays in order to receive appropriate referrals for care and housing.
Carol Sobel, an attorney representing the homeless, said she would still consider sticking with the motion to file a restraining order blocking motel evictions by the county to ensure people “would not be kicked out onto the streets.”
Rebecca Flynn, a resident of Anaheim and member of HHROC, said she has “hope, but not much faith” a plan will develop between the county and cities. She doesn’t expect “smooth sailing” in efforts to get cities on board for a countywide plan for the homeless.
“[South County cities] say they’ve done so much for the homeless and then turn around and send bus loads of people saying ‘Not in my back yard,’” she said.
Flynn said she was glad to see the Board of Supervisors change their tone after “years of sitting on plans” for the homeless.
Do has publicly accepted responsibility for the lack of robust county services for the homeless and pledged to do more.
Carter criticized county officials last Friday over the “decades of neglect” on comprehensive homeless policy and failure to spend at least $187 million in county funds recently uncovered under designation for mental health services.
As part of an agreement in an ongoing lawsuit, county officials removed residents of the encampment on Santa Ana River Trail and temporarily housed them at nearby motels and hotels. After 30-day vouchers from the county expired, officials sent notices informing residents they would be moved to shelters or other social services.
Flynn said advocates “worked tirelessly” to hold the county accountable, ensuring homeless residents weren’t kicked out of motels unjustly and received food vouchers from the county. Some stays were extended on a case-by-case basis.
The supervisors entered a subsequent agreement with advocates and city officials, brokered by Judge Carter at a day-long hearing on March 17.
The Board of Supervisors proposed constructing temporarily housing at sites that could fit 200 people in Irvine and 100 each in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.
Bus loads of angry residents showed up to protest the board’s proposal. Mounting public outcry from residents of those cities effectively scuttled the proposal.
The cities of Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel also announced lawsuits against the county over the plan.
On Tuesday, Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner said the city “will no longer pursue the lawsuit,” adding he expects it to be dismissed. Irvine, he said, filled the suit but never served it since the Board of Supervisors scrapped their plan immediately.
Wagner angrily pushed back the idea his community was not open to hosting shelters and services for the homeless.
“We’ve been accused of NIMBYism,” he said. “My community is wealthy, compassionate and it has stepped up.”
At the Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza of the Flags, only blocks away from the courthouse, county staff and Santa Ana police continued their work of assessing the needs of homeless people sleeping there. The work could take more than a week.
Carter has set no hard deadline on the removal process.
He has repeatedly said 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 Disability Act compliance regulations in order to meet the needs.
“Let’s keep the veteran amputee off the second floor of a building but I don’t want to hear that the counter is too short in the lobby,” Carter said. “I would rather get them off the street.”
The in-chamber meeting Tuesday between city officials and Carter ended without any definitive resolution.
Mayor Tita Smith of the City of Orange said the meeting was useful in that it “activated and motivated” cities and “people in elected leadership to find solutions.”
Mayor Wagner said he was “never under the illusion the process would be over in a year.”
At the hearing, Carter pressed him on whether he would commit to “proportionality” in a countywide plan to share the responsibility of care for the homeless.
“Are you that leader?” Carter asked
Wagner said he will convene a conference of mayors from southern Orange County in San Clemente on April 19.
Wagner said the goal of that meeting would be to both continue the conversation between mayors and provide a response to Carter who has said he is willing to delay judicial intervention as long as he “sees movement” and commitments from cities.
In the absence of political unity on homelessness, Carter has acted as convener and power broker.
Smith said “many other leaders stepped up today,” pointing out Do and mayors in attendance.
“There will always be leadership [in the County],” she said.
Pulido said the Santa Ana City Council would vote later in the day to decide whether to file a lawsuit against other cities in the County in order to bring them into coordination on planning.
“We love Orange County but if cities don’t want to talk, we’ve got to bring them into court,” Pulido said.