In a departure from the approach of years past, Santa Ana city leaders are promising to take a proactive role in eliminating homelessness in their city.
At a study session last week devoted to the subject, City Council members and top staffers gathered with nonprofit leaders, activists and homeless residents themselves for a wide-ranging discussion.
“Today I’m super excited by this conversation,” said Councilman David Benavides. “You have a council here that is supportive, and is ready and willing to act.”
One theme throughout the testimony was the need to continue bringing together various stakeholders – including people living on the streets – in forging a path forward.
“These days people like to speak a lot about empowerment,” said Tim Houchen of the homeless advocacy group Civic Center Roundtable.
The way to empower the homeless, he said, “is to include us in the decision-making about our current and future existence.”
That message was warmly received by city leaders, who vowed to ensure the homeless have a prominent voice in the policymaking process.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about basic human rights and dignity,” said Councilman Roman Reyna. “I really do think that we need to have representation of the population that we’re focusing on.”
Many stakeholders agreed that the current fragmented approach to homeless services across Orange County is inefficient and ineffective.
Advocates agreed that the county needs a centralized intake system whereby professionals could assess what types of services homeless people need, and get them quickly connected with those services – such as job training, drug rehab or temporary housing.
After hearing from the public, council members committed to several action steps going forward.
Councilwoman Michelle Martinez directed staff to look at funding sources for homeless housing, as well as options for creating places for the civic center homeless to store their belongings.
“I hope that our police department and our city manager can look at some ideas…to see how we can partner to make sure we don’t have to cite you” and take your belongings, said Martinez.
Creating a storage option “seems like it’s a fairly obtainable solution,” Benavides added.
Councilman Vincent Sarmiento asked staff to see whether the county could fully implement a federal food assistance program that covers restaurant meals, as well as the possibility of transit vouchers from the county transportation agency.
“Many families are just one paycheck away from being homeless. They’re one illness away from being homeless,” said Sarmiento. “It’s a very personal thing for us.”
Homeless residents of the civic center, meanwhile, applauded the council’s efforts while also requesting that police stop issuing tickets they view as criminalizing their destitution.
In particular, Civic Center Roundtable representatives criticized the issuing of tickets for sleeping in the Civic Center, as well as the confiscation of their property.
“Cease with the homeless tickets,” said Brizy May, who is also known as “Mama Brizy.”
“If we’re going to work together and get ahead…then help us, don’t give us tickets. Help us.”
Police Chief Carlos Rojas, meanwhile, said his officers are looking out for the safety of civic center visitors as well as the homeless who live there.
Having unknown packages next to buildings, he added, created concerns “from a homeland security standpoint.”
On of the most prominent voices in local homelessness efforts, Larry Haynes of Mercy House, urged council members to take “four bold strokes.”
The first is to understand the importance of collecting and analyzing data to inform decision-making.
“So much of what drives social policy is bias, and ideology and anecdotal evidence,” said Haynes. “Let the data speak for itself. Let what we do be evidence-driven, not ideological-driven.”
The second step, he said, is to work towards a single place for assessments and intakes.
“We have to have a centralized intake system, so we can look at this from a macro perspective,” said Haynes.
The third step is to replace the armories that currently provide temporary shelter during winter months and instead build at least two year-round facilities.
“Shame on us as a county that we don’t have those things. Most places do,” said Haynes, adding that homeless people are dying in Orange County streets.
“That is absolutely unconscionable in one of the wealthiest counties in the country,” he said.
The final step, he said, is to build permanent supportive housing and invest in rapid rehousing of homeless people.
“We know how to end homelessness, we just need to do it,” said Haynes.
One example cited by advocates is the state of Utah, where officials realized that it would cost the public less to provide each homeless person with an apartment and social worker than keep them on the streets.
Over the past eight years, Utah's program has reportedly reduced homelessness by more than 70 percent.
“People are more likely to chart new paths if they have stable housing and meaningful choices from which to start,” wrote Utah’s homeless coordinating committee.
More than a dozen homeless people and advocates spoke up during public comments last week, mostly to urge a comprehensive and collaborative approach to the issue.
Roundtable member Carl Brown said he was previously homeless, but after being provided with affordable housing in Los Angeles’ Skid Row he’s back on his feet and attending college.
“We want to move on,” said Brown. “Something permanent needs to be put into place, so people can move on with their lives.”
Others advocated 24-hour shower and bathroom facilities in the civic center as a quick way to give dignity to those who live there, as well as improve the area’s smell.
On the shelter front, county officials say they’re making big headway towards establishing two permanent homeless shelters.
Just this week, county supervisors set aside $3.6 million in the coming fiscal year to operate the facilities, which would be Orange County’s first. The county already has $6 million dedicated to purchase and develop the properties.
“Wow. Some exciting things happening right now,” said Karen Roper, executive director of the countywide Commission to End Homelessness. “We’re going to change history in Orange County.”
The shelters are planned for Santa Ana, and potentially Anaheim.
Santa Ana officials are now looking at an area near the corner of McFadden Ave. and Grand Ave. to build a multi-service center for the homeless.
A community forum on the location is in the works for the fourth week of July.
State Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) was also on hand to offer his support for the community’s efforts.
“I’m here to learn, and more importantly I’m here to roll up my sleeves and work with you,” said Correa.
Santa Ana is widely considered a hub for Orange County’s homeless, with the county Civic Center serving as a de facto homeless camp. There, hundreds of people live on the front lawns and courtyards of city and county government.
At times, families with young children are seen living among the civic center homeless.
In addition to warding away visitors, police officials say the strong smell from the area has made it difficult for county and court workers at the civic center to spend time outside during breaks.
Mayor Pro Tem Sal Tinjaero, meanwhile, laid responsibility for the city's past inaction on previous council members – as well as current Mayor Miguel Pulido.
The mayor resisted efforts to create affordable housing in Santa Ana because he believed it would bring in more poor people, according to Tinajero.
“It was this huge fight to get affordable housing here in Santa Ana,” he said.
The councilman had sharp words for Pulido, who didn’t show up to Thursday’s meeting.
“I know you live in the biggest property…in Santa Ana, but poor people are already living here,” said Tinajero.
If advocates see the mayor, Tinajero added, they should let him know "that you hope that he goes along” with the council.
Thursday’s study session highlighted a style of government engagement whereby officials schedule a forum dedicated to a particular topic and solicit input from the public in the hopes of generating better policy.
It recalled a recent meeting in Irvine where transportation officials invited bicycle advocates to give advice about how to make roads safer for cyclists. The April forum was considered a success by advocates and government leaders alike.
The Orange County Transportation Authority, meanwhile, was also a point of discussion at Thursday's homelessness workshop.
Advocates questioned why the transportation agency doesn’t open up its abandoned bus depot, which is across the street from the civic center, to the homeless.
City leaders encouraged advocates to bring their concerns directly to OCTA officials.
Thursday’s session was just the beginning of the newfound dialogue, council members said. Benavides suggested that such forums be held on an ongoing basis, or that further discussions be held at the city’s public safety committee or an ad-hoc council committee.
The homeless lobbying group also brought praise from city leaders.
In forming the Civic Center Partnership, Benavides said the homeless residents were “creating a collective voice.”
“That’s awesome,” he added, calling it “democracy in action.”