In about another month, El Niño will become the most impactful policymaker on homelessness in Orange County – quickly raining down a slew of uncomfortable choices upon county supervisors over the impromptu tent city that has arisen at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center over the last two decades.
The time for action is now.
It’s critical to get moving now on getting the outdoors civic center homeless population into an abandoned bus terminal on Santa Ana Boulevard just across the street from supervisors’ chambers.
Even if it’s just a temporary triage center, the facility can provide a roof and an orderly way of servicing and protecting those in need.
This year, Orange County goes into Thanksgiving actually having done something on homelessness – voting to establish the first year-round homeless shelter, at a site in Anaheim.
Yet as I’ve written before, a shelter is not a strategy.
Most homelessness activists and analysts will tell you that developing affordable housing stock is the key component in preventing homelessness.
Yet that’s a stock that Orange County elected officials just don’t seem interested in buying.
Absent that, Orange County needs to focus on getting people rapid response when they hit the streets, help before they become chronically homeless.
The homeless shelter authorized for Anaheim won’t be up in time for this winter and it’s important to understand that supervisors have been very clear that the site won’t be a walk-up place where homeless people on the street can seek immediate help.
The aim, underscored by supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer, is to have a system in place, not just one shelter.
“Now that we have bought the building in Anaheim, I expect every supervisor’s district to start looking for a location,” Spitzer told me. “We’re going to bring a regional solution to this. The Anaheim site is not to deal with the entire homeless population.”
Just on the heels of the Anaheim site approval by supervisors last week, my colleague Erika Aguilar from KPCC radio got Supervisor Shawn Nelson to confirm that supervisors are apparently negotiating with the Orange County Transportation Agency to purchase the bus terminal.
I reached out to Nelson but got radio silence. Same for OCTA, other than to confirm that they are still in negotiations – which has been the case for several years.
Supervisor Andrew Do, whose First District includes the civic center area, also wouldn’t chat on the bus terminal.
But Do does underscore the need for a strategy.
And he seems to be making real progress.
I recently heard that the executive homelessness position that Do requested has been approved.
We need a quarterback for this effort instead of waiting for Orange County’s homelessness task force, which seems to lack momentum.
Do earlier this year noted in public that Orange County agencies often don’t know what the other is doing when it comes to homelessness.
“Usually, we spend time talking about what you built…but who did you help?” Do told me, underscoring it’s not just about numbers.
“Numbers can says anything you want to say,” Do told me. “I’m not about looking at numbers anymore…if we have same person there every six months, that’s a failure.”
He wants a Homelessness Dream Team, executives who can move the ball and create a model of service as opposed to just running shelters.
We need leadership.
Civic center activists will tell you that even the non-profit community needs better communication when it comes to delivering services at the civic center.
Larry Smith – who leads the Civic Center Roundtable – told me that city officials are looking into better communication on feeding efforts, given that non-profits are tripping over each other to feed people.
This past weekend, Smith told me the civic center was overrun with groups bringing things like food and cosmetics, noting they were all on top of each other.
Even nearby residents were showing up.
“It’s almost like a festival or flea market type situation,” said Smith, noting that tonight a Santa Ana City Council subcommittee will be reviewing the situation.
While Santa Ana has been fighting the bus terminal site for years — officials are understandably worried it would complicate efforts to redevelop downtown –there’s a need now to bring order to the area.
That will go a long way toward redeveloping the civic center.
There are plans to redo the entire area and a streetcar development underway as well.
Thus, there’s easily an argument now to use the vacant facility to house homeless people – even as a short term method of cleaning up the civic center grounds and ensuring that anyone who is homeless during one of the worst winters on record is in a facility where they can be helped and have shelter.
Do needs to start thinking like Noah and finish preparations before the rains come.
There isn’t much time.
Not doing anything this winter could cost lives.