Orange County supervisors took another step Tuesday towards establishing the county’s first year-round homeless shelter, but not before a tense exchange between two supervisors over whether a permanent shelter would mean the end of an emergency winter shelter.
Supervisors voted unanimously to issue a request for proposals to operate the future shelter in an industrial area of Anaheim, just north of the 91 Freeway on N. Kraemer Place. The county bought the property in November to use as a homeless shelter.
The winning bidder will oversee a variety of services at the 200-bed shelter, from food to mental health support and connecting people to longer-term housing options elsewhere. Stays would be generally be limited to 30 days.
“I feel like we’ve turned a huge corner in this county” when it comes to how homelessness is dealt with, said Supervisor Todd Spitzer. “[But] our work is not done.”
Scott Larson, the chairman of the county’s homelessness commission, lauded the supervisors’ action, saying the effort to establish a year-round shelter and service center has been years in the making.
Not only does this project need to be successful, “but it needs to be replicable in other parts of the county,” said Larson, referencing the commission’s goal of having multiple shelters throughout the county.
Spitzer agreed, saying the county has one chance to get it right.
“If we don’t do this [correctly], we won’t be able to site another homeless shelter,” he said. “This is something we’re gonna have to really babysit to make sure we get it right.”
Top officials described the shelter as an entry point for services, emphasizing that it’s crucial to create more affordable housing for people after their stay in the shelter.
“Where we really need resources is on the permanent housing and rapid re-housing side of things,” said Julia Bidwell, the county’s interim director of housing, community development, and homelessness prevention.
“Some of the best practice models tell us not to build a shelter; they tell us to build housing,” she added. But the shelter is an important component, she said, because without it, “it’s sort of like building a hospital without a waiting room.”
That sentiment was shared by supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett, who said homelessness is “a long term problem, and we need a long term solution” to get people into permanent housing, among other things.
Under the request for bids released Tuesday, the county is seeking an operator for both the new shelter and the ongoing emergency cold-weather shelter program at National Guard armories.
Organizations would be allowed to team up for their bids, which could cover either the new shelter, the current armory shelters, or both.
However, disagreement remains over whether to shut down one or both of the armory shelters after the Anaheim location opens, with Spitzer clashing with Supervisor Shawn Nelson over the issue.
While the county’s 10-year plan on homelessness calls for phasing out the armories after year-round shelters open, Spitzer said the population served by the armories is different from those who would go to the year-round service center.
People who go to the armory shelters in winter “are not necessarily the individuals” who want to be in “a wraparound” 24/7 care, Spitzer said, nor do some of them want to be screened for felony warrants and sex offender status, as they would at the Kraemer site.
And with thousands of homeless people on the streets, the Kraemer doesn’t address the size of the demand “in my mind at all,” Spitzer said.
But Nelson sees things differently.
He asked for assurances from staff that the Fullerton armory shelter program will shut down when the Kraemer shelter opens, noting that it’s what the 10-year plan calls for.
Spitzer countered, saying the need is too large to shut down one of the armory shelters.
“My gut tells me, with 4,500 [people], per the homeless count, living on the streets every night, 200 beds isn’t gonna cut it,” he said.
Nelson, however, was adamant that the Fullerton armory should be shut down. He said that keeping it open would violate the trust of the cities that chipped in money for the Kraemer shelter with the understanding that the armory would close.
It would be a “real cheap low blow” to drag people into this commitment and then change at the last minute, Nelson said, adding that such a move would mean the county “deceived” 700,000 people living in those cities.
A date hasn’t been set for supervisors to decide what to do with the armory program.
Regardless of what happens, the nonprofit Mercy House, which currently operates the armories, is widely expected to be the frontrunner for the Kraemer contract.
Several key homeless advocates have described Mercy House as difficult to work with on many levels. For his part, Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes has said he recognizes the problem and has been trying to do a better job of collaborating with others. But he also points out that Mercy House has sometimes been the only one to step up when the county needs a service provider.
Also remaining to be seen is whether homeless people will be allowed to bring their belongings to the new shelter. Many homeless people keep all of their worldly possessions with them, and limits on how much they can bring has been cited by advocates as a barrier for people accessing the cold-weather armory shelters.
That concern was echoed by Supervisor Andrew Do, whose office sent out a news release Tuesday saying that “among the challenges for potential shelter operators is how to accommodate the personal belongings of people that use the shelter.”
“In his conversations with homeless residents, the issue of safeguarding possessions is one of the top challenges.”
The current bid document calls for applications to be due in June and approval of the winning bidder by the county Board of Supervisors in late August.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.