Santana: Supervisors Making Progress on Homelessness

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

A county social services bus at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center.

For the first time in a long while, the public dialogue with Orange County Supervisors on homelessness has a different tone.

Progress.

Whenever it rains now, any one of the 500 homeless people living at the county Civic Center can easily walk over a few hundred yards to a comfortable covered shelter at the former Santa Ana Transit Terminal building on the corner of Civic Center Drive and Ross St. in downtown Santa Ana.

During our most recent storms, County Supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett reported that nearly 100 people came into the facility – currently administered by Mercy House – adding that services are steadily improving.

The county even listened to my son, Maximo’s idea for getting heating lamps at the $3.2 million abandoned transit terminal they bought (my suggestion last June) from OCTA last December to ensure some sort of shelter during this year’s rain storms for the homelessness epidemic at our county Civic Center.

During the last rainstorm, I also noticed a series of temporary tarps up at the facility and it also seems that bathroom upgrades are already underway. There’s even talk of some sort of approach to temporary storage.

It’s a stark difference from when I lashed out at county executives during the storms in December, when the very same people I warned about last summer were getting wet.

Progress.

Escrow should be closing soon on the property, allowing for a deeper assessment of what kinds of rapid response services the transit terminal could offer to the chronically homeless living at the Civic Center.

There’s also progress on a full-time homeless shelter in Anaheim – thanks to Supervisor Todd Spitzer. And this last week, Spitzer also seemed to underscore a commitment that the county’s cold weather armory shelter system wouldn’t be abandoned until there’s a comprehensive strategy in place.

For the first time in the decade that I’ve covered the Orange County Board of Supervisors, our current board has actually stepped up to the plate and offered what seems to be unanimous direction to county executives to develop an actual approach to homelessness.

From what I can tell, County CEO Frank Kim also seems to be giving his executive team the right kind of direction — get busy and creative on homelessness.

Orange County Employees Association General Manager Jennifer Muir also has come out strong on the issue, arguing publicly in an OC Register Column that addressing the homeless situation at the civic center is not only a humanitarian priority but also a workplace safety issue for county workers.

In the last few weeks, we’ve already seen innovative moves with supervisors recently authorizing programs providing affordable housing for homeless veterans.

Supervisors soon should also be getting a healthy diet of options on homelessness policy from Kim’s executives – like what to do with the bus shelter site.

Progress.

Kim also recently announced that the county is in the final stages of hiring a new County Homelessness Services Coordinator – a six-figure executive whose job is to connect applicable clients with county services to address the explosion of homelessness at the Civic Center and throughout the county.

The almost simultaneous retirement of Karen Roper from OC Community Services this month is as close as you get to a public admission from county supervisors that their current policy was a shipwreck, a total failure.

Progress.

Clear direction from county supervisors, along with some energy and vision from the executives, is what’s really needed.

Look at what happened when we needed the Federal Transit Administration to sign off on temporarily using the terminal for homeless during recent storms.

Every official I talked to kept telling me, which I wrote in my columns, that FTA was impossible to move. It would take forever, they said.

Yet the more we all engaged county supervisors, and in turn our well-paid legion of legislative staffers at the county and OCTA, guess what?

We finally got action.

Within days…

Consider this:

I recently ran into Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (who was one of the officials I called myself on the FTA issue) at the Great American Write-In and she underscored how important all our pressure was back in December with officials in Washington, D.C.

Sanchez, who directly engaged her own legislative staffers on the issue immediately after we spoke on cell, told me she believed county legislative efforts were stalled until I called her.

She told me given her experience in Washington, D.C., her office was able to effectively engage with FTA – getting what some thought undoable, done within days.

Yet Sanchez – who is running for U.S. Senate – underscored that public opinion is what moves bureaucracy. It’s the tide of American politics, she told the crowd of petitioners earlier this month at the Write-In at Santa Ana’s Delhi Center.

She’s right.

We have to keep our elected officials focused. It’s up to us to keep them engaged. To let them know we expect the best, that’s what we’ve paid for as taxpayers.

Homelessness is solvable. Other cities across America have done it.

The new county’s new homelessness executive – thanks to the efforts of Supervisor Andrew Do – will have the mandate of cutting across many departments, mainly the Social Services Agency and Health Care Agency with the sole aim of getting services to homeless populations throughout the county.

In many ways, it’s a welcome entrepreneurial approach toward homelessness.

For once, when it comes to the question of homelessness responses, there will be someone that can sit at the front dais like the director of real estate services, HR, government affairs, finance…someone inside the CEO’s office that can offer a biweekly check-in to the public.

Someone who can answer questions, be held accountable without falling apart at the public dais.

This last week, Bartlett and Do also chaired an important hearing last Friday to take a frank look at the county’s weak approach toward mental health, which is costing taxpayers and families dearly every day.

Credit Bartlett and Do for their willingness to tackle complex issues such as mental health that come with incredibly difficult financial challenges for a donor county in Sacramento like Orange County.

Progress.

When it comes to the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center homelessness hub, we must not forget that time is short.

Soon, a mushroom cloud of dust and debris will envelop the area now occupied by the homeless at the civic center, which will likely scatter the small tent village that has popped up in its midst.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson – who himself was the first to really start focusing county supervisors on homelessness with unsuccessful attempts to site a shelter in Fullerton and Santa Ana during his chairmanship a few years ago – last week publicly warned Santa Ana city officials that the wave is potentially headed their way.

Now, if Orange County’s all-Republican Board of Supervisors has a sad record on homelessness in past years, their low marks are only surpassed by their all-Democratic, supposedly progressive, colleagues on the neighboring Santa Ana City Council.

They run half the county Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana through a longstanding joint powers authority.

Yet they seem to be a total zero on one of the biggest issues impacting their own downtown.

Council members were supposedly working to establish a check-in center for the homeless more than a year ago. And even though their own local library has turned into a defacto homeless shelter – seriously impacting the children of Santa Ana who need the library to study – council members seem to be a no-show on the issue.

Nelson publicly called out Santa Ana council members at the last county supervisors meeting as absolute failures and total politicians on the issue, arguing they have contributed virtually nothing – other than to play politics – to the human drama playing out on their doorstep.

Maybe Nelson is just being a good team player and throwing a nice lead block for his buddy Republican, Do, who is running for office against a field that includes Democratic Councilwoman Michelle Martinez in November.

Either way, homelessness has been placed front and center like never before in Orange County.

And the coming combination of civic center bulldozers and the politics of the 2016 election are likely to produce an interesting spin-off.

Progress.

  • OCResident

    While we advocates certainly appreciate the support of our local press outlets, I think it’s a little presumptuous to assume that only your intervention has moved the needle on these issues. The advocacy community, especially in Anaheim and Fullerton, have been quite active for over five years to get that year round shelter proposal moving. We’ve been out in force since 2009, and especially after Kelly Thomas’ death, meeting with local elected officials, their staff members, local law enforcement and service providers, strategizing and pushing to get the main components of the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness implemented. In Anaheim, the Anaheim Poverty Task Force crafted it’s own Plan to End Homelessness to focus the best practices and ideas on one of the county’s largest cities, with one of the largest homeless populations. The APTF even conducted its own citywide homeless census for two years running (independent from the countywide efforts). They’ve been asked by advocates from around the county to help with similar efforts in their communities as well.

    No one set of efforts can advance progress on an issue as difficult and complicated as homelessness. But we advocates have been at this for a really long time, fighting a very politically conservative environment that would prefer to send our homeless residents to Riverside rather than help them not be homeless. I’m sure it’s a combination of factors that has finally moved our electeds toward the implementation efforts you outline.

    Again, thank you for help in keeping the pressure on. But it would be nice to see you acknowledge that your efforts may have fallen on deaf ears if not for those of us who have been greasing the skids for you for 5+ years already.

    • David Zenger

      “especially after Kelly Thomas’ death”

      Which had absolutely nothing to do with homelessness and everything to do with police brutality.

      • OCResident

        However, if the homeless were housed and not outdoors being homeless, there wouldn’t be a vulnerable population available to be beaten.

        • David Zenger

          If Kelly had wanted to live under a roof he had both Mom and Dad to stay with.

          Kelly is not dead because there was no homeless shelter. He is dead because 6 cops bludgeoned him to death.

          And not one of your crew said or did anything to condemn the cops that killed him or the system that protected them.

          Please get a new poster child for your cause.

          • Jacki Livingston

            Amen

          • OCResident

            Actually, hundreds of members of “our crew” did condemn what was done. But we also turned that sadness and and anger into action. Although our initial efforts for a year round shelter in Fullerton failed, we continued to fight for permanent supportive housing and another year round shelter in Anaheim.

            Oh, and with respect to Kelly Thomas’ Mom and Dad, he had stayed with them many times over the years, but the voices in his head from his diagnosed schizophrenia would often force him to leave. If our mental health services system – for everyone, not just the chronically homeless – was actually functional (see the other VoC article on this topic) I strongly believe he would still be alive.

            By no means am I defending the officers involved here. I think they’re guilty and every one of them should be in prison. Unfortunately, the jury didn’t agree.

            And I don’t really see that Kelly Thomas is a “poster child” for our cause, he is simply the most recent and sad example of what happens when both the homeless services and mental health services systems fail. That’s why we advocates do what we do – so there doesn’t have to be another Kelly Thomas.

            I might ask, why are you focusing so much animosity on the police here? The justice system didn’t work in this case. But why don’t you use Kelly Thomas as YOUR “poster child” for reforming police tactics? Put that anger into action, rather than spending time complaining in online comment sections.

          • David Zenger

            “Actually, hundreds of members of “our crew” did condemn what was done.”

            Please cite one example. Just one. With real manes, of course.

    • Hey great points! Strong and sustained community engagement is absolutely key to effective public policy. And you’re right, many homeless activists, non profits and agencies have been carrying most of that weight – without much engagement from elected leaders in OC – for too many years. So Big Thanks! News outlets also don’t operate in a vacuum so without the public and activists engaging, news stories or columns don’t go anywhere. I thought I pointed that out but maybe not enough. Great news for OC is together, we’re all changing the narrative for our local government! Thanks again for engaging!

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    Pressure = Progress. It’s a start in the right direction. Let’s hope it is sustainable.

  • David Zenger

    Hmm.

    So the message is that it’s not enough to elect them and give them $1,000,000 office budgets. We have to constantly put pressure on them to do their jobs.

    Got it.