Before Orange County supervisors consider jumping into another homeless shelter effort, this week in Anaheim, they should just stop and do what Newport Beach resident Susan Menning did this last year.
Get out and meet these people.
Menning spent the last year doing what many taxpayers do when personally confronted by the sea of hopelessness living outside our county Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.
She took action.
Working with an Irvine-based non-profit called the Heart of Delight Foundation, Menning – a former communications head at UCI – spent the last year working with homeless residents at the Civic Center, helping them tell their own story.
For months, Menning worked with professional photographer Paul Kennedy to arm these residents with disposable cameras, gathering photos and nurturing the most creative photographers of the group on the art of urban low-tech photography without flash.
The result of their work is on display this month at the Santora Arts Building in downtown Santa Ana.
This past Saturday during the monthly Art Walk in the historic Artist’s District, I spent some time with Menning, Kennedy and the homeless photographers looking at the slice of life they showed.
The images are inspirational, a mix of hard-hitting, soft, funny, creative.
Menning notes the exhibit, titled “Inside/Out,” offers a chance to see more of these people than the two-second shot we usually see through a car window or a makeshift shelter on the street.
“Surprise, surprise,” said Kennedy. “These people have hearts, minds. They have lives.”
County Supervisors don’t have to see these folks because they get to drive into a private garage just below their civic center chambers. Most of their top assistants also get to do the same.
I remember in years past, when I was a chain-smoking county beat reporter with the Orange County Register, I used to stand out in front of Civic Center Drive at the end of the day and watch executives and supervisors leave from the parking garages alongside a deputy sheriff (or special service officer) who had drawn the bad hand of having to stand on post because the top brass didn’t want to see the county’s homeless on their way off to fancy fundraisers and events.
Today, the amnesia is institutionalized.
Despite the daily presence of hundreds of desperate people scattered across the entire civic center block, Social Service Agency Director Mike Ryan admits the county doesn’t walk it’s own beat in it’s backyard.
Why wouldn’t you have social workers, even aides to county supervisors, trying to assess what kinds of existing government programs could be helpful to each one of these folks at the civic center? They are literally right outside the front window.
Ryan blames SSA’s inability to work the civic center grounds on a lack of funding.
For that you can thank your supervisors, who in this last year’s budget spent every penny of supplemental budget funds on public safety, between the sheriff's department and the district attorney's office.
A request for SSA went unfulfilled, on hold until later this year.
There was never a public debate about leaving those capacities unfilled. Just a series of quick and easy, pro-public safety (ie: public safety union campaign spending) votes and that was it.
The easy way out.
Now, the ACLU tells us that Orange County is among the cheapest of counties when it comes to helping the homeless.
When pressed on these kinds of issues, county supervisors reflexively point fingers at Sacramento, arguing that the county’s weak portion of property taxes just doesn’t leave any room for providing critical services.
Yet let’s not kid ourselves.
That’s a deflection.
There’s enough money in the budget to spend six figures on appointing a Party Planner-in-Chief to help county supervisors utilize county resources to campaign. The job recruitment is already underway.
It’s all about priorities.
Supervisors have theirs.
And they’re usually tied to campaign outcomes.
And Orange County’s political priorities don’t include the homeless.
At least, not now…
Last week, I got the chance to spend some time with the Civic Center Roundtable – a burgeoning civil society grouping of homeless residents living at the civic center – and we got the chance to talk about the importance of civic engagement and communicating public priorities to elected officials, particularly in public.
I hope and pray the photo exhibit at the Santora is just the beginning of a blossoming of voices from the Civic Center and that many of those who have reluctantly become long-term tenants gather the strength to come forward and publicly tell their stories to county supervisors as well as offer direction on county homeless policies.
Standing at the civic center grounds last week during our roundtable discussion, everyone – including homeless residents, activists and non-profit providers – all agreed that the vacant bus transportation shelter across the street would be an ideal assessment center able to identify needy people quickly and house them temporarily until they can get help and transitional housing.
Right now, the Orange County Transportation Authority – at the behest of former supervisor and now state Sen. John Moorlach – allows the homeless to use the bathrooms on the site of the abandoned bus shelter building.
They should open the entire site.
Moorlach and other supervisors like Shawn Nelson once supported that very option. When supervisors voted down a Santa Ana shelter site last year, they vowed to revisit the bus shelter option – an option supported by leaders in the civic center homeless community.
Yet nothing since.
It seems cruel to allow people to use a huge covered shelter to go to the bathroom and then have them sleep outside, uncovered and unprotected.
Consider “Mama Brizy,” an older women who lives at the civic center grounds and just recently got out of the hospital from heart surgery.
Brizy, who has herself spoken up publicly to supervisors in the past, is taking baths at the OCTA bus facility bathrooms.
All she wants is toilet paper on the weekends and a better drain.
We should be able to do much better than that.