Mercy House Living Centers, the Santa Ana-based charity that runs Orange County’s two winter emergency homeless shelters, will continue its work under a new contract approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

The board unanimously extended the Mercy House contract last week through the winter of 2012-2013, with an option to continue an additional two winters.

Orange County has no year-round emergency shelters for the homeless but does use National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana from roughly early December to mid-April.

Last year the armories, which served about 1,200 homeless, closed early because they ran out of money in March due to a partisan fight in the House of Representatives that delayed passage of the federal budget.

Julia Bidwell, deputy director of the county community services department, said 47 organizations were invited to bid on a new contract to operate the armories, but Mercy House was the only one that responded. It has held the contract since February 2008.

“When only one proposal is received, OC Community Services evaluates the proposal to confirm the respondent’s ability to perform quality services and deliver the requested service units,” according to a community services department notice to the supervisors. “OC Community Services found the [Mercy House] proposal met all requirements and entered into the contract negotiation process.”

Although the county has hundreds of nonprofit organizations, few are equipped to handle the demands of running an emergency shelter, particularly for men.

In addition, said Bidwell, “it’s not a money-maker. That has to be part of their reason” for not applying. Since 2008, the poor economy has dramatically increased the number of people needing at least temporary help, either in housing or food. At the same time, donations and grants to groups that support those in need, have decreased.

In May, the Board of Supervisors approved $419,046 in federal funds to run the shelters this winter. In addition, state funds, which were withheld because of the state’s financial crisis, will return this year, said Bidwell.

The armory shelters, which serve breakfasts and dinners, house only adults. Families with children are sent to motel rooms for the night. On nights when the National Guard uses the armory for training, temporary spaces are offered by area churches.

Bidwell said the county hopes the army shelters would open Dec. 1 but is waiting for the National Guard to specify dates when the armories won’t be available.

The county is slowly moving toward opening a year-round emergency shelter. Plans are being developed, which then must be approved by county officials and supervisors. Then grants and other funds must be found to operate the shelter.


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