A homeless encampment at the Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

At first glance, it would be hard to blame homeless people and their advocates in Orange County for looking back in anger on 2014.

For the second year in a row, a local city council rejected a county-approved site for a permanent year-round emergency homeless shelter, which meant the county spent another year with the dubious distinction of being one of the few large metropolitan areas in the nation without one.

In 2013, city council members in Fullerton shot down a proposal led by Supervisor Shawn Nelson to convert a former furniture store in the southeast section of town into a shelter.

This year it was Santa Ana’s turn to scuttle efforts by the county Board of Supervisors to get a shelter built.

Residents came out in force against a county plan to purchase a building in a light industrial area on the eastern edge of town. In the face of the resident pressure, Santa Ana City Council members balked at making the required zoning changes, and the county backed away from a proposed deal to purchase the property.

The turn of events was appalling to Nelson and Supervisor John Moorlach.

“It mystifies me that a city council would be so disappointing,” Moorlach said of Santa Ana.

Particularly irksome to the supervisors is that the proposed site on Normandy Place was in the city’s SB 2 zone, an area that the council approved as suitable for a homeless shelter under state law.

Nelson went so far as to ask the County Counsel’s office to explore legal options against Santa Ana, given the “tremendous expense” of staff time for researching the zones and conducting appraisals of the property.

“This whole thing has been shameful,” Nelson said during a November supervisors’ meeting.

Homeless advocates say they share the supervisors’ frustration with the actions of city officials, but also point out that the county could have gone ahead with both the Fullerton and Santa Ana projects without approval from the cities had they had the political will to do so.

But in spite of (or perhaps because of) the collective failure to build a permanent shelter, advocates say county and city leaders finally seem willing to do more than just pay lip service to improving the lot of homeless people.

Just the fact that the supervisors tried as hard as they did to get shelters built in Fullerton and Santa Ana shows a different mindset. And though Santa Ana council members disappointed many with their actions regarding the shelter, they did vote in their final meeting of the year to establish a storage center for homeless people who populate the downtown.

One possible location for the storage center is the city’s shuttered downtown bus terminal, which Moorlach and others have long argued could serve the homeless population in a variety of ways.

“We are excited about that,” said Paul Leon, CEO of the Illumination Foundation, an Irvine-based nonprofit that services homeless people. “Five or six years ago the cities weren’t even ready to start talking with us…I think we now have some templates in place.”

Leon gives particularly high marks to the city of Anaheim, which in the spring closed escrow on a three-acre parcel of undeveloped land on the Fullerton border that might end up being where the county’s first year-round shelter ends up.

He said Anaheim officials also helped the Illumination foundation get 95 families threatened with homelessness into permanent housing, and are doing outreach in La Palma Park, where many homeless people congregate.

Similar praise comes from Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, which runs the county’s winter shelters in Fullerton and Santa Ana and is partnering with Santa Ana on the storage locker project. Haynes said he’s confident a permanent shelter will become a reality sooner rather than later.

“I know it seems counterintuitive because we saw the rejection of a year-round emergency shelter in two locations,” Haynes said. “However, we are seeing leadership on the supervisorial level, and we’re seeing cities wrestling with this issue and taking it seriously.”

And beyond the shelter effort, Haynes said, a group of homeless services organizations has made good progress on creating a centralized processing and intake center that will ultimately lead to better tracking of homeless people and improved service delivery. The groups involved in this effort include: Mercy House, 2-1-1 Orange County, Pathways of Hope, Family Assistance Ministries, and South County Outreach.

“It is a slow process and there are some real growing pains,” Haynes said. “But overall, it’s exciting.”

Advocates also point to a pending application to HUD that could mean $2 million toward putting the county’s most vulnerable residents in permanent housing. And the board of CalOptima voted this year to pay as much as $150 per night for up to 10 nights of recuperative care for homeless people being discharged from the hospital.

Perhaps the most credible evidence that city and county leaders are finally getting serious about helping homeless people is that optimism regarding progress has trickled down to the street level.

Massimo Marini, an advocate and participant in the Civic Center Roundtable, a grassroots group made up of members of Santa Ana’s downtown homeless community, said homeless people themselves are at last being listened to.

“I think we finally have all the stakeholders involved,” Marini said. “That’s the big change of 2014 — [homeless people] came out and are being accepted by the power structure as valid.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at dwashburn@voiceofoc.org.

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