This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
When Donald Dillon was arrested in February 2014 with nearly seven ounces of methamphetamine, he was homeless and living at the Orange County Civic Center.
He was sent to state prison but released after just 11 months with no parole due to Prop. 47, the initiative approved by voters in last November’s election that reduces some property and drug crimes from a felony to misdemeanor.
Now the 47-year-old, nearly lifelong addict is back at the Civic Center along with an increasing number of other former inmates, which some say is the result of Prop 47 and AB109, Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment law that shifted the responsibility of supervising non-serious, non-violent felons from the state to county.
The influx, say homeless advocates and law enforcement, has made an already bad situation at the Civic Center even more difficult to address.
“We’re not only seeing more bodies…but a lot younger crowd, and it’s causing a whole new dimension of homelessness,” said Paul Leon, CEO of the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit that provides transitional and supportive housing for Orange County’s homeless.
“Over 98 percent of our clients aren’t violent, don’t have a criminal element. The new group that’s coming in seems to be more desperate. And, anecdotally, I know violence [at the Civic Center] has increased, because we’ve heard that,” Leon said.
Serious Crimes on the Rise
Santa Ana Police Department statistics back up Leon’s observations. While the total number of police calls at the Civic Center has remained essentially flat in recent years, reports of certain serious crimes have spiked.
Calls for service for drug activity, for example, increased by 63 percent between 2012 and 2014, going from 91 calls to 143.
Assaults with a deadly weapon more than doubled, from 8 calls in 2012 and 2013 to 18 in 2014. Probation and parole checks increased from 10 in 2012 to 31 in 2014.
View all the statistics for the Civic Center for 2012-2014, provided by the Santa Ana Police Department.
“We have seen a sudden increase in people loitering, lingering in the area, because they get released and they have nowhere else to go,” said Cmdr. Ruben Ibarra, who oversees the department’s patrol of the Civic Center. “[Especially] near areas with a lot of narcotic activity.”
The security issue landed on the county Board of Supervisors’ dais last month following a report of an assault on a county employee to the Sheriff’s Department and Santa Ana police. The Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), which has long complained about dangers facing county workers at the Civic Center, sent a letter to supervisors demanding action.
OCEA Assistant General Manager Jennifer Muir said that while the union supports more resources for the homeless, they also want to see a greater police presence during times when employees are leaving the area.
“The level of intimidation ranges from the very high end, an assault that did happen to an OCEA member, to direct threats,” Muir said, citing a report from a county employee who said a homeless man threatened to rape her. “All the way to intimidating statements or comments on their clothes.”
“That’s not saying all the homeless people at the Civic Center are bad people – but to say that this is not happening is unfair,” Muir said.
Police officials and the homeless residents themselves don’t doubt the employees’ claims, but insist that most incidents at the Civic Center are “homeless-on-homeless” crimes, say both Ibarra and homeless residents themselves.
“Smitty,” a homeless man and member of the Civic Center Roundtable, said he doesn’t think there has been a significant change in safety conditions.
“Most of these people are no more a threat to us than they are to themselves,” he said.
County officials, meanwhile, say it’s premature to attribute any increase in the Civic Center homeless population to the prison reform measures.
“We do not have any evidence to support that theory,” said Ed Harrison, spokesman for the county Probation Department.
Mitch Cherness, who manages HCA services for the AB109 population, was skeptical of whether the new homeless at the Civic Center are AB109 releases, given that there are housing and substance abuse services available for that population.
And though he thinks it’s too early to tell, Cherness said Prop. 47 releases are more likely to be struggling after custody given there is no funding for housing or substance abuse treatment for that population.
Moreover, Cherness said there’s no built-in incentive for Prop. 47 releases to get clean, and attributes a recent drop in the number of people requesting residential treatment for substance abuse to the voter-approved measure.
“Because there’s no formal probation or supervision, they don’t have an extra push to get them into care,” Cherness said.
Mental Illness and Drug Use
Regardless of the actual numbers, Leon says it’s crucial that officials understand the added mental health issues the re-entry population brings to an already complex demographic.
“It really takes a lot of patience, effort and expertise by police, mental health and city workers to handle a population with mental illness. Since they’ve already been incarcerated, the escalation goes from zero to a hundred in a matter of seconds,” said Leon.
Although realignment took affect in 2012, he says that cities may not have seen immediate increases in the local homeless population, in part because many former inmates may have had housing upon the time of their release, but have since struggled to keep it.
“When they can’t find a job to sustain the housing, they fall back to the Civic Center,” Leon said.
Having a history of homelessness is 7.5 to 11.3 times more likely among inmates than the general population, according to a Nov. 2013 report by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.
A 2014 county report on Realignment notes that “a large majority” of those released into the Realignment program have multiple mental illness diagnoses, substance abuse problems, medical issues and a history of trauma.
Massimo Marini, an organizer for the Roundtable, argues that focusing on whether crime has gone up misses the bigger picture.
“The people coming out now are mostly drug users, and most are going to go right back to using,” Marini said. “If we’re not putting out the money for real, substance abuse rehab — and indeed, we’re not — it’s putting people with a lack of resources in the same situation.
Although the county Health Care Agency received at least $15.3 million toward services for the re-entry population during the 2014-15 fiscal year, providing mental health, substance abuse and housing services continues to remain a challenge.
The 2014 county report found that drug use, whether occasional or frequent, caused serious disruption to the lives of 83 percent of Orange County probationers, with higher rates among those in more stringent county supervision programs.
Just 12 percent of probationers held a job for more than seven months after release, with the rate going down to as little as one percent among those in the mandatory supervision programs, according to the report.
Unable to find a job to support housing, “consequently, it is easy for a homeless client to be found in violation of their terms of supervision due to their circumstances,” the report notes. Sex offenders remain the most difficult to house, “forcing most to remain homeless.”
Cherness said the Health Care Agency works closely with the Probation Department.
“The goal of [Probation] is to get people into care – if a client is willing to get into [substance abuse] services, they’re not going to be violated for being homeless,” he said. “They’re going to try to keep a client from going back into custody.”
While there is an increasing demand for transitional housing among Realignment program offenders, their choices are limited, if living with family and friends is not an option.
Temporary community shelter beds are largely limited to people with mental illness, while sober living homes are available to those with documented substance abuse issues who complete a residential treatment program, according to the report.
The county recently received a grant for homeless services, some of which will go toward additional shelter beds for newly released offenders, Cherness said.
The Health Care Agency currently contracts with four treatment providers, totaling 95 beds, for up to 90 days of treatment for substance abuse.
The agency has averaged 56 new admissions a month between Jan. and Sept. 2014, according to the report, although new admissions are now capped at 25 because of funding limitations.
Of the nearly 11,000 adult offenders supervised countywide, 935 were recorded as homeless countywide and 112 of those were in the city of Santa Ana, according to Harrison.
Among those individuals, the county has records of 20 homeless offenders who are supervised via a GPS device, with three who are known to stay at the Civic Center “during traditional sleeping hours,” Harrison said.
Harrison said homeless offenders with GPS devices are given charging plugs and are required to find a public space, such as a library, to charge their ankle bracelets.
Dillon, meanwhile, said getting released early was a mixed blessing.
“Prop. 47 was a godsend because, if you’ve got any strikes already, and I had nine, it turned my charges from felonies to misdemeanors,” Dillon said. “But if you get released under Prop. 47, you’re released with nothing.”
Without any substance abuse intervention post-release, he was back to using almost immediately. There’s little reason to get sober when you’re homeless, Dillon said.
“I could quit anytime I want to. It’s all in here,” Dillon said, tugging on his baseball cap.
But Dillon is hopeful. The aunt of a homeless friend, a man from Upton, CA who lives at the Civic Center in order to report daily for state parole, has offered to take them both in.
At that point, Dillon says, he’s going to get clean.
“When we leave, we’re going to Upton. I don’t know anyone there. Plus, I’m moving into a Christian home. I’m looking forward to the change. And fixing my bike so I can visit down here,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that a county employee was stabbed at the Civic Center. Law enforcement and the Orange County Employees Association received a report of an assault on an employee, but not a stabbing.