Santana: OC Supervisors Should Meet Homeless

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.

Susan Menning stands with civic center photographer Lorenzo Benitez

Susan Menning stands with civic center photographer Lorenzo Benitez


The images are inspirational, a mix of hard-hitting, soft, funny, creative.

Dennis, a civic center resident points to a photo of himself in the exhibit.

Dennis, a civic center resident points to a photo of himself in the exhibit.

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.

Civic Center Photographers Lorenzo Benitez, JImi Fellows and James Carroll

Civic Center Photographers Lorenzo Benitez, JImi Fellows and James Carroll

“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.

That’s politics.

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.

  • CitizensForAnimalShelterOC

    Don’t believe what the Board of Supervisors say, its what they actually do that counts. And speaking of dogs and cats, maybe the BOS should get out and visit the 74 year county animal shelter when the rendering truck comes to pick up the barrels of dead animals, and smell the stench which the public, staff, volunteers and incoming animals endure on a weekly basis because the layout of the shelter is based on 1940’s thinking. When the invocation/prayer is stated at the beginning of each BOS meeting, the BOS apparently “don’t get it.” They are really “lost.”

  • Jasenn Zaejian, Ph.D.

    Deflection indeed! The GOP dominated BOS non-actions and rhetoric regarding homelessness are consistent with their national and state political platforms. While they enrich themselves, their campaign coffers, and their wealthy benefactors and businesses, they fail the citizens of this county by ignoring and/or rationalizing the homelessness problem that makes OC to stand out as one of the most irresponsible of all US counties in taking care of homeless people. Sound, replicated research studies have established that county and city governments who release the funds to house their homeless populations, actually save money by decreasing the need and expense for public safety funds for crime reduction. This same research demonstrates that when housed, formerly homeless people go on to become productive citizens, increasing the economic base by increased tax revenues. This begs the question: why does the BOS continue to deflect, rhetoricize with hot air, and do nothing.

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    “Get out and meet these people.” – Nice idea. If SSA can’t find the will to serve the homeless – it is because the BOS does not care. If the BOS cared then SSA and HCA would team together and care. That is how it works. So the basic 3 second analysis is : the BOS does not care one teeny tiny micro bit. County staffers have ears and eyes ONLY for the BOS priorities. If the BOS priorities are fluff and mush so goes the county.

    It’s pretty grim to think that the BOS could care less about homeless people and dogs and cats. Knowing that to be true is even worse.

    Maybe the BOS will start a task force, discussion group or send out their least senior or most disliked EA to pretend to do a homeless meet and say howdy. They will take pictures that will “show” they care. But the homeless will be the first to tell you it is all a dog and pony show. They are homeless not stupid.

  • David Zenger

    “Get out and meet these people.”

    No, because they are dirty and some of them are sick. Ick.

    And also if you found out what the homeless really need you might just discover that spending millions and millions on a homeless shelter in an industrial park in the back of beyond isn’t the best way to proceed, even though the apparent dedication to the cause will provide lots ‘n lots of photo ops showing one’s humanity.

    Mike Ryan’s complaint about funding is absolute nonsense. If you have ten million or more to waste on a shelter in the wrong location you have plenty of resources to (finally) figure out what is really going on – right outside you door.

    Also, Building 16 sits there empty (for over twenty years) a testament to the lack of real concern and imagination by the BoS.

    • Jacki Livingston

      I have emails from Mike Ryan, when he was the hatchet man for former Director Riley. Ryan was sent to deal with me, when I would not shut up about embezzlement and crime in the agency, which affected some of our most vulnerable clients. Ryan was a do nothing, then, except to direct his own minions to shut me up. The SSA management tree is completely corrupted with horrible cronyism and nepotism. One family has 8 or 9 people in it that are all supervisors. Nguyen used the agency to funnel money from nursing home vendors into her war chest. SSA looks, to the public, like a money spender. But the truth is, it is a money maker. Quarterly time studies are doctored to bilk more money out of different state and federal programs. Ryan stepped into that role because he was very good at decimating any employee who did not toe his crooked line. It is so corrupt, you would have to wipe the slate clean and start over.

      • David Zenger

        “Nguyen used the agency to funnel money from nursing home vendors into her war chest”

        Has the ring of truth. Please elaborate.

        • Jacki Livingston

          The nursing home that I found was in her district, and she got a lot of donations from there. They had comatose and paralyzed patients who got large lump sums from Social Security. Instead of turning it over to the families, they put in fake receipts for non existent expenditures, and kept the money. They also double and triple billed. I found about a dozen, before they forced me off, and got the money back to the families that needed it. The attorney for the nursing home group was a major contributor to Nguyen, and Nguyen, in her capacity as the “Queen” of the CalOptima board, glossed over any complaints. I had tried to get her and the entire board to examine the problem, along with the new system being rigged in a manner that allowed vendors to double and triple bill the state, but they did nothing except have me punished. The financial officer for the nursing home frequently dropped Nguyen’s name, and implied a close friendship. No one would do anything, even after court case after court case against the homes and doctors, for fraud, brought by the state, feds and private plaintiffs.

          • David Zenger

            You should give the details and the name of the home to Norberto and his crew ASAP.

            It would be pretty devastating if it could be shown that Nguyen somehow ran interference for a facility that was defrauding the State and/or Feds. Like I said, it has the ring of truth to it given what I’ve seen from Nguyen.

          • Jacki Livingston

            Spitzer and Nelson both ignored it. I went to my own congressman, I was so concerned, and he contacted them. They both ignored it. They have layers of people who not only do their dirty work, but who also shield them from ever having to deal with anything messy.