Santana: Supervisors Wake Up to Civic Center Homeless Explosion

Orange County’s Board of Supervisors has finally engaged on homelessness, launching a visible effort last week in their own backyard at the Santa Ana Civic Center – after I called them out publicly.

Today, we seemingly have a whole new direction for the county’s public sector executives from our all-Republican board of supervisors.

Start attacking homelessness like Iraq.

We want to see a shock-and-awe approach to social relief.

That’s the new message coming from the fifth floor at the Hall of Administration.

“You’re going to see an immediate about face on the county’s complacency on this issue,” Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer told me last week after publicly demanding a new approach to homelessness in Orange County.

“Our priorities and how we deploy resources is deplorable,” added Spitzer, who criticized the county’s response to the Civic Center situation in his inaugural speech back in 2012.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson last week was the first to open the flood gates, questioning publicly what many officials have been asking privately for the last decade:

Why isn’t the county doing more about the exploding homeless population at the Civic Center?

Why does it look like there’s zero governmental response to this human crisis?

The answer, from Health Care Agency Director Mark Refowitz was shocking, mainly because it was so frank.

HCA was essentially told years ago to leave the Civic Center area to chaos.

Refowitz told supervisors his mega-agency was told by county supervisors years ago to just pull back and deal with the explosion of mentally-disabled, jobless people washing ashore in downtown Santa Ana by throwing a few public mental health nurses at the problem…on the down low.

Now it all makes sense.

These were the same folks who used to have Sheriff’s deputies stationed outside their parking garage at the end of the workday so they could drive out without even seeing any homeless people.

Yet thanks to Nelson, Spitzer and Supervisor Andrew Do, a new board of supervisors officially ended that approach last week.

We now have a new direction.

Spitzer encapsulated it best when he talked about wanting to visibly see the county “chipping away” each day at ending the hopelessness on permanent display throughout the Civic Center grounds.

“You will immediately see a triage approach in the Civic Center as early as next week,” Spitzer told me later. “They are going to deploy a full set of resources into that Civic Center.”

Spitzer, Nelson and Do also indicated they were on the right track, based on their public questions last week envisioning an approach toward homelessness that is entrepreneurial but still based on the best science and experience available.

Now, our county supervisors are on target, talking transitionary housing, mental health assessments, job training and recruiting clients for programs like CalWorks and Medicare.

A continuum of care, as top HCA executive Mary Hale called it.

Spitzer and Nelson started throwing ideas around publicly last week, asking whether the county should have a mobile home out on the grounds, a way that troubled people can see help and head to it, like a beacon.

Right after their meeting, Nelson texted me a picture of a small tented structure that HCA is now operating on the civic center grounds.

Nelso shot at County

It’s a start.

But most homeless on the Civic Center grounds are a bit puzzled by the tent.

Who is going to go and sit in public at a table and talk about their mental challenges?

It’s a doubt that Do and Spitzer publicly questioned themselves at last week’s meeting.

Do told me last week he is currently leading an effort to reevaluate the Civic Center grounds and is examining all aspects.

In order to get an effective and coordinated approach to the Civic Center population immediately and not lose momentum, sights should remain squarely focused on the abandoned bus shelter across the street from the Civic Center.

It’s the best place to get started quickly, to act entrepreneurially.

Supervisors technically already authorized it last year when they voted to move on the bus terminal after voting down a proposed homeless shelter nearby in Santa Ana.

Walking around the Civic Center last week, I took some time to ask those who know, the activists leading the Civic Center Roundtable – which meets every Friday to offer a voice to residents who now call the grounds home.

Some have been living there as long as a decade.

Larry Smith, also known as “Smitty,” is one of the leaders of the rountable.

While most activists working at the civic center have long lost hope on the bus shelter, Smitty told me what others have: It’s the best option to get started immediately.

He told me the bus shelter “would work perfectly for the Civic Center plaza area because not only can you have storage for everybody’s property out there, but you have room for everybody also. All the homeless will have somewhere to congregate. Nobody has to leave. You provide a place to hang out, a place where all the agencies can bring services under a covered location. They don’t’ have to worry around sun or rain, there’s even access for the people who bring food. They can set up, drive in and drive out. You eliminate a lot of congestion and trash,” he said.

To transform the area immediately, you would just have to bring in a few portable restrooms to compliment those already being used by homeless under an agreement with the Orange County Transportation Authority, which currently owns the facility.

Supervisors should move to purchase the facility.

Along with some storage lockers, cots and covered awnings, charging stations for laptops and phones and computer stations for job searches, the entire site could function perfectly as an assessment center.

It would save taxpayers money immediately.

If you look around the Civic Center grounds, you’ll find the current approach has ruined the site. Fountains have been impacted, grass and sprinklers are destroyed not only from people but from police cruisers driving all over the grounds.

All of the surrounding libraries have been turned into homeless service centers already. Kids using the Santa Ana library have to be rerouted to a separate bathroom because the public one on the facility has become a shower for homeless people.

Opening up the bus shelter would immediately transform all these public areas.

Lastly, lets not forget that the Civic Center in it’s current form is a dumping grounds for ex-prisoners and parolees. It’s a breeding ground for crime, especially after hours.

Rape among females at the civic center is a real, cruel reality and one that too many have had to already endure, I’m told.

Structure eliminates that kind of chaos, like antiseptic.

A tented table is nice.

But it’s a bit like dropping a Coke bottle in the middle of a desert. People are likely to just look at it, instead of using it.

But hey, it’s a start.

“They haven’t been out here before,” Smitty told me. “So it’s a good start.”