The American Civil Liberties Union is taking on homelessness in Orange County, saying county leaders are not doing enough to solve some of the systemic issues surrounding the problem.
The group is launching an effort, dubbed Dignity for All, aimed at addressing the civil and human rights issues related to homelessness.
While the typical solution has been to criminalize homelessness with strict enforcement of trespass and loitering laws, the ACLU says the real crime is not providing a way off the streets.
Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in the United States but is also home to thousands of people living on the street.
Now the ACLU is carving out a spot in Orange County, trying to advocate for immediate policy change.
"Ultimately we hope to create the political will to prevent and end homelessness here in the county," said ACLU attorney Heather Maria Johnson.
"That would include advocating for policy changes to prevent and end homelessness, such as the expansion of affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, an emergency shelter. It also includes opposing the criminalization of homelessness."
Johnson said Orange County officials have been reactive instead of proactive in trying to find solutions to homelessness.
She acknowledged that there are many leaders in the county who are concerned about this issue but claimed there hasn't been a concerted effort that has led to change.
"Many people talk about homelessness issues. The county has created a 10-year plan to address homelessness, but so far it hasn't led to increased shelter or permanent supportive housing," said Johnson.
County Supervisor John Moorlach, meanwhile, took issue with the ACLU's claims.
"I would probably beg to differ. … We are doing something. It may not be at the speed that you'd like to see, but some of these things are not as easy as you would think they would be," said Moorlach.
"It depends upon how you quantify speed, but we have been working diligently to try to find locations within unincorporated areas and within cities to provide for a year-round homeless shelter."
Moorlach said the Board of Supervisors has been working with local cities to try to get the appropriate zoning changes for homeless shelters. But, he said, both city leaders and residents are resisting.
Moorlach added that the city government in Santa Ana, where many homeless gather, has been of no help.
"Here in the Civic Center we have an ideal location for a year-round homeless shelter. It is right across the street from my building," said Moorlach.
He was referring to the old Santa Ana bus terminal, which he said would be perfect for the homeless, a place that could provide many kinds of services. However:
Moorlach said, however, that "the city of Santa Ana did not zone this area as SB2. They put their homeless shelter year-round opportunities well away from here, and that was probably unanimous by the seven City Council members," said Moorlach.
"Residents are going to have a big say, and it's a political activity to try and find that happy spot. It has to be somewhere in a commercial zone [with] no residents, no schools, no churches — who knows what? But it's not easy."
Johnson said it would be easy if the county supervisors and local mayors work with the ACLU to find short-term and long-term solutions. Because if not, the organization could eventually do what it's famous for.
"Litigation is definitely an option if other advocacy work doesn't succeed," said Johnson.
"The county and local governments have resources they can use to address homelessness right now. They may argue they don't have enough, but really, this is about prioritizing the need to house people."
Moorlach said the county's 10-year plan is going "quite well."
"We have four implementation groups. We've asked them to work with all the nonprofits so we're getting silos taken down. We're getting some incredible cooperation with all the providers, and we're identifying available beds. We're working with 2-1-1, which is a phone number you can call if you need temporary housing," said Moorlach.
The ACLU said suing the county is a last resort. It first wants to work with Orange County and all the local governments on various policy changes, what it calls "constructive alternatives to criminalization."
Ultimately, the ACLU said, it's stepping into this fight to make sure that political leaders put homelessness at top of their to-do list.