A broad coalition of advocates met face-to-face Wednesday with Santa Ana and Orange County officials in an effort to get local leaders moving on a number of homeless issues, including the months-long delay in establishing a center in the Santa Ana Civic Center for homeless people to store their belongings.
Those living in the Civic Center have long complained about police confiscating their belongings, which led the Santa Ana City Council to set aside about $200,000 per year last December for a check-in storage center.
Yet, while the money was set aside and the nonprofit Mercy House chosen as the operator, the check-in center still seems far from becoming a reality.
Finding out why was one of the major reasons why the Project Homelessness coalition called for Wednesday's meeting with officials.
The coalition includes a wide range of representatives, including from downtown businesses groups Downtown, Inc. and the Santa Ana Business Coalition, the homeless advocacy group Civic Center Roundtable, and nonprofit groups Illumination Foundation and Heart of Delight.
City Manager David Cavazos noted the city’s political and financial support for the storage center, but said a viable site hasn’t yet been identified. He said an open-air parking lot next between the county Hall of Administration and the county’s abandoned Building 16 would be “a decent location.”
But Cavazos also said the county, which owns the lot, is concerned about “any kind of long term check-in center there” because it might conflict with a yet-to-be-revealed Civic Center master plan.
Local activist Dylan Thompson, meanwhile, suggested that a site like that could be used temporarily until a more permanent space is found.
Another option is an abandoned bus terminal right next to the Civic Center, which some officials, like former county supervisor and now state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), have said could be turned into a center for homeless services.
When city staff took that option to council members there was “pretty strong majority” who wanted to use the terminal for the storage center, Cavazos said. But there’s been little progress on that front, with county Community Resources Director Karen Roper noting that it was funded with federal transportation grants that restrict its use.
“It’s a great location and it’s not being used now, but we don’t have the authority to do anything” with it right now," Roper said.
However, asked whether, given the terminal’s abandoned state, OCTA officials could seek a waiver from the federal restrictions, county executive Carolyn McInerney said they could.
Madeleine Spencer, a Santa Ana-based activist who arranged Wednesday’s meeting, said she would contact OCTA officials to find out what needs to be done to use the terminal for a storage center.
The advocates emphasized that officials should be asking whether the services they’re providing, such as the storage center, are humane. Ian Daelucian of Heart of Delight pointed to a storage center in Anaheim run by Mercy House, where homeless people’s belongings were stored in trash cans.
“When we provide a service, let’s put ourselves in that position of being the service recipient,” Daelucian said.
Cavazos said he’s recommending that part of Santa Ana's newfound $11 million budget surplus go toward combating homelessness. A decision by the City Council is scheduled for Tuesday.
And county officials noted that they recently conducted a survey of homeless people in the Civic Center to get a sense of what the main issues are.
It showed that while many homeless people are connected to certain welfare benefits, the use of housing subsidies is “very low,” Roper said. One reason could be the “very long wait lists” for such subsidies at housing authorities, she added.
Another big barrier is the federal ban on Section 8 housing subsidies for those with felony convictions, which many homeless people have. To address that, county staff members plan on asking their elected bosses, the county supervisors, to fund more accessible housing subsidies that aren’t funded through Section 8.
Roper acknowledged that having mental health outreach workers working with law enforcement to connect people with services is “far cheaper and more cost-effective” than jailing people.
“It’s just better all the way around for homeless folks, as well as the whole community, and so we’re all for getting [homeless] connected to resources,” Roper said.
Cavazos, meanwhile, emphasized that police have to enforce the law.
“If anybody commits a crime, regardless of their situation, they have to face the consequences,” he said. “So things that are criminal offenses, we have to arrest people.”
Spencer encouraged city and county officials to work with people on the ground and bring them into the process, something officials have been criticized as doing too little of in the past.
Roper said the comments from Spencer and Daelucian were “great feedback,” and encouraged them to share those ideas with the county’s health workers who do outreach to Civic Center homeless people.
“While we’re looking to create some bigger systems change," Roper said, "I think it’s important for all of us to come together to work on [interim strategies.]"