An empty bus station across the street from the Orange County Civic Center might determine how successful local leaders are in their goal to end homelessness within 10 years.
As things stand now, Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach and Paul Walters, Santa Ana's acting city manager, are at odds over whether the now-closed station should be turned into a permanent homeless shelter.
Moorlach is all for the idea. Homeless people now congregate during the day at the Civic Center, just below the windows where the supervisor and his four colleagues have their offices.
At night the homeless people either stand in line for the relatively few shelter beds in the county or wait for downtown businesses to close, then camp out in alleys and doorways.
Opening the bus station would, from Moorlach's point of view, improve the situation. "They've [homeless people] always been here," said Moorlach, who has been in office since 2005. "What would be the problem moving them across the street?"
As the county government's top elected official, it is Moorlach's responsibility to make progress on the homelessness issue. In 2008 President George W. Bush made ending homelessness by 2020 a national goal. The state and federal tax dollars dedicated to the problem flow through county governments.
But Moorlach and others focused on ending homelessness need people like Walters in order to make the lofty goal a reality in Orange County. Gaining the support of city leaders is a make-or-break hurdle.
How much support or opposition they receive from cities will be determined by how well the county marshals resources, responds to the needs of cities and produces effective programs for homeless men and women with serious mental, health or addiction problems, according to a variety of people involved with the issue.
At this point, Santa Ana is not onboard with Moorlach's bus station concept. The city sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors last month voicing "strong opposition" to year-round use of the bus station. Moorlach said the letter "caught us by surprise."
And in a recent interview, Walters made it clear that as of now he does not share Moorlach's enthusiasm for the idea.
"The homeless thing is important, but I'm not sure how quickly we'll be able to come up with the solution," Walters said. The Santa Ana Planning Department is examining zoning and other codes for the bus station, he said. "The concern, of course, is for the downtown business people."
The Current Reality
For several decades, dozens of adults — primarily men with nowhere to live — have hauled bed rolls and plastic bags of belongings to a sidewalk lined with trees and benches outside the Civic Center.
Local charities provide meals there, and in winter the men can pack up their belongings each afternoon and walk a few blocks to the city stadium. Buses will take them to the Santa Ana National Guard Armory, one of two temporary shelters run by the county.
But Orange County has about 7,000 homeless people, far more than temporary armory beds. There is no year-round shelter where adults can get a meal and a place to sleep. In addition to the armories, charities provide accommodations to those who qualify, but that often means they accept women and children but not male teens or men.
Moorlach said Walter's predecessor as city manager, David Ream, was "not helpful" in trying to solve homelessness issues. He said Ream opposed programs like bathrooms and trash cans to help those in Santa Ana who lived on the streets. Ream said "I don't want to legitimize it," according to Moorlach.
Even so, for the past few years the city and county have split the $33,917 annual cost to keep the empty bus station's bathrooms open, clean and available to those who are homeless. The bathrooms are open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"We have a good, cooperative agreement with the city," Moorlach said.
He said he thought Walters would be more supportive than Ream.
The two will meet Tuesday to discuss the homelessness issue. Moorlach will try to persuade Walters that it is a humanitarian concern.
"If you opened it [the bus station] up, it would provide protection from the rain and during the summer, protection from the sun," he said.
Walters, who sits on the county commission to end homelessness that Moorlach chairs, said the bus station "isn't a place to stay forever."
Some significant numbers of those who are homeless — like the woman who last week was pacing the sidewalk outside the Civic Center at 6:30 a.m. laughing and talking to herself and ignoring anyone who talked to her — need mental health care. The county is supposed to develop those and other programs as well as permanent housing solutions.
Walters said Santa Ana, like many cities throughout California, has been through rough financial times because of the poor economy and is not in a position to create its own new programs. He said the city has cut 400 jobs during the past three years and "it becomes a challenge to just do regular business."
Walters asked, "What's the long term plan" for all of the homelessness issues? "For us, we want a coordinated way of providing services or at least get them the [medical or mental] treatment they need."
But, he added, "We'll see what their [the county's] ideas are, and I'll tell them what our ideas are."
Mike and Stephanie, homeless and living on the sidewalk outside the Civic Center, were packing their belongings last week at sunrise. The overnight temperatures were in the low 50s, but even so, they said they preferred sleeping outdoors in sheltered spaces to taking the bus to the armory.
"The armory's a good thing, and they're all polite," said Mike. "It's just the crowds."
It's hard to get a good night's sleep at the armory, he said. There are long lines, noise and a schedule that leaves lights are on until 10 p.m. and requires everyone to leave by 6 a.m., he said.
"I wish they'd open up that bus station so we have a place to sleep," Mike said, "but they won't do it."