(CN) – A pair of homeless shelters inside two National Guard armories in Southern California’s Orange County shut their doors mid-July, pushing over 200 people back into the street and exacerbating the county’s shelter crisis as housing shortages and rising rents ramp up pressure on residents statewide.
At a federal court in Santa Ana Friday, U.S District Judge David Carter played his cellphone video of interviews with former armory shelter residents who are now sleeping in parks or on the streets throughout the county.
In the video, a man who is sleeping on the ground near a public school said he tried to find bed space at local shelters only to discover they were at capacity. Other shelters wouldn’t accommodate couples, people with pets or late comers, the interviewees said in the video.
Carter – who is presiding over a pair of federal civil rights lawsuits seeking to protect the county’s homeless population from unlawful treatment – has been pushing county leaders for months to approve sites for shelters in three service areas – north, central and south – in order to immediately house homeless residents.
“I don’t want the [Santa Ana] riverbed to fill up again,” Carter said in reference to the homeless encampment along the river which local authorities cleared earlier this year. “My breaking point was these armories. Don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good.”
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.
Susan Price, the county’s director of care coordination, said Friday the county has over 2,500 homeless residents in need of shelter, according to a 2017 count.
Since 2013, the county has experienced a 53 percent increase in unsheltered homeless residents, according to a county report.
Carol Sobel, an attorney for the homeless, 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.
As part of a stipulation with attorneys for the homeless, the county committed to housing 60 percent of those people, or about 1,550.
Price said the county’s current plan would meet that goal by establishing a network of shelters in the three service areas, including regional centers that would connect homeless people to appropriate health services.
Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Jose Moreno said the city will have at least 200 new shelter beds by the end of the year, though he did not indicate a final launch date.
In conjunction with Santa Ana, the city will apply for the state’s homeless emergency aid grant to support shelter development.
Moreno said both cities combined could receive more than $7 million, but their respective city councils will first have to vote to declare a emergency.
Carter pushed back, claiming that the county could be eligible for over $15 million in emergency aid grants, based on his discussions with state officials who also told him the state has not received a formal request to extend the availability of the two armory shelters.
Officials from the county’s 34 cities are engaging in settlement discussions with Carter and attorneys representing the homeless. Carter said the “good faith” settlement talks are the only thing keeping him from blocking cities’ enforcement of anti-camping ordinances.
Carter also said Friday he is working with state court officials to expand the existing Homeless Outreach Court to target unsheltered veterans in the county. The goal of the program would be to help homeless veterans clear minor violations from their records in order to access care.
“We are not going to criminalize the homeless,” Carter said.
A status conference is scheduled on Sept. 7.