SoCal Cities, Homeless Rights Advocates Agree to Shelter Settlement

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – With the prospect of litigation looming, and a month after two critical shelters closed their doors, city officials from Southern California’s Orange County said Friday they agreed to settlements that will provide shelter beds and health services for the county’s homeless population.

City officials told U.S District Judge David Carter that memorandums of understanding have been approved and properties placed in escrow for proposed shelters. The county has set a goal of 1,550 beds.

Santa Ana Deputy Chief Ken Gominsky said a 600-bed shelter in Santa Ana – down from the 700 originally proposed – will serve homeless residents in the county’s central region. Another 50 beds would be ready “in under 90 days” at a proposed site that would eventually contain 200 beds.

Rick Otto, city manager of the City of Orange, said 450 beds at two shelter sites will serve residents of the North County.

Otto said North County officials will dig into their coffers to fill any gaps in the estimated $15 million project budget. Carol Sobel, an attorney for the homeless, said the settlements will be drawn up and signed within 45 days.

Carter has set a goal of 300 beds for the South County region though negotiations regarding shelter sites are ongoing. The county has said it would make up a 500-bed gap with new housing units for the homeless slated to open this winter.

In August, Carter directed Costa Mesa City Manager Thomas Hatch to ask state officials about the proposal to turn Fairview Developmental Center – a massive, state-owned medical complex that is slated to close – into permanent or temporary housing for the homeless. Hatch said the state won’t back the proposal.

In March, the Costa Mesa City Council voted down a proposal to convert Fairview into a mental health facility for the homeless.

The announcements came after Carter warned officials for months that he would block them – through a court ruling or temporary injunction – from enforcing anti-camping ordinances if people sleeping in public spaces aren’t given appropriate shelter.

Carter said there would be no continuance after Friday.

“Today you litigate or you settle,” Carter said. “You should use money to build [shelters].”

Officials from the county’s 34 cities have engaged in settlement discussions in order to be released from a lawsuit alleging violations of transients’ rights by cities who arrest them and take their possessions.

As part of an earlier 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 until appropriate shelter and health services were provided.

Advocates for the homeless have said that shelters shouldn’t be in isolated locations but instead close to public transportation, jobs, health services and emergency responders.

R. Joshua Collins with Homeless Advocates for Christ said there hasn’t been enough talk about permanent housing for the homeless.

“Not every homeless person wants to go to a shelter,” Collins said. “I’m glad they’re making more shelters, but we want housing. There’s been very little talk of that.”

A county official told Carter at an Aug. 3 hearing that there are 2,500 homeless residents in need of shelter, a 53 percent increase since 2013, according to a county report.

Sobel has said the county’s homeless count is low and doesn’t factor in the population that dispersed across the county when the riverbed was cleared.

California leads the nation with both the highest number of people experiencing homelessness – about 134,000, or 24 percent of the nation’s total – and the highest proportion of unsheltered homeless people in any state at 68 percent, according to a California State Auditor report issued last month.

In a unanimous decision Tuesday in the Martin v. City of Boise case, the Ninth Circuit ruled that cities cannot prosecute homeless people for sleeping in public when there aren’t enough shelter beds available for them.

Backed by Tuesday’s ruling, Carter said his position was the “law of the land now.”

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait thanked Carter for providing a venue for countywide collaboration on addressing the homelessness crisis and thanked advocates for “holding us accountable.”

Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do said Carter “rules with an iron fist and a velvet glove.”

Do announced a data sharing agreement between the county and service providers that will ostensibly streamline placing homeless residents in shelters.

Carter has questioned the political will of the board regarding its task of finalizing an agreement for the construction and financing of shelters.

“You’re right,” Do said. “All of this is just talking until we have people in beds.”

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