Orange County supervisors quietly delivered an impressive holiday gift to our region last week, purchasing a long-abandoned bus terminal on the edge of the Civic Center in Santa Ana that could become a future hub for public agencies looking to provide homeless services.
The $3.2 million purchase from the Orange County Transportation Authority is an impressive move that shows real vision and political guts from county supervisors as well as the beginnings of a regional plan to combat homelessness.
It also shows what public calls to action can accomplish.
I interviewed a number of non-profit workers, homeless activists, elected officials and agency staffers about the terminal earlier this year and publicly challenged county supervisors to move on the property.
Numerous others from our community also called on supervisors – both publicly and privately – to step up.
It’s a real response that will almost certainly save lives, and one that shows how government can work intelligently on issues.
Orange County is now slated to have two supervisors' districts with facilities aimed at providing homelessness services, a stark difference from just a year ago.
While plans for a year-round shelter in Anaheim triggered numerous emotional and packed public meetings, the Santa Ana bus terminal was approved with only a brief comment last week. Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer noted that Supervisor Andrew Do would be returning with a vision for the property and the county’s approach to homelessness.
Here’s a few thoughts.
Do earlier this year also got his colleagues to approve the creation of a single homeless services coordinator – a "homeless czar" of sorts – whose aim is to ensure that departments like the county social services and health care agencies work together.
Now, resembling a sports team general manager being given a brand new stadium, the homelessness executive gets a cool, half-open sheltered area the size of a football field to design services and temporary housing that can help those most in need – right where those in need are.
Kraemer Pl. and the Santa Ana bus terminal allow the county to experiment with different approaches, and come up with a strategy.
The bus terminal shouldn’t be looked at as a simple housing shelter.
It should be able to replace the lawless and hopeless morass that has become the Civic Center grounds.
It should be a place where a lost person can find help, immediately. A triage clinic for broken people – where social workers, health care workers, non-profits, can work together almost like a teaching hospital that focuses on getting help to people as effectively as possible.
Existing bathroom facilities can and should be immediately expanded to handle outdoor showers.
All of the existing resources available to the county should be focused into the property, a place where executives and staff can best see their clients first hand and work on solutions. The front lines of this battle should be right where public sector executives can look out a window and see them.
People should be able to calmly and securely store their belongings in a locker system that is either at the bus terminal or nearby.
The open-air aspects of the facility can be a big plus as it can allow homeless people a place to be where they are not on display. The covered aspects can offer immediate beds or cots, heated lamps, portable laptop and phone charging areas.
Some of the sheriff’s special officers or deputies could also be placed at the terminal to heighten safety for those staying at the center.
Feeding should be easier at the bus terminal because its design can allow non-profits to roll into and out of the facility.
The fact that there was no public protest to the purchase of the bus terminal showcases one of its central advantages: institutional zoning.
There’s no nearby neighborhood to impact when it's time to offer feedings or assessments or job fairs. There’s plenty of room and the facility faces away from downtown businesses and toward a parking lot.
Most importantly, the bus shelter allows the county to actually develop a skill set when it comes to delivering services to vulnerable people.
These are muscles that have atrophied over the years from lack of use.
I’ll never forget the sad, lonely table that county supervisors had placed outside on the grounds after I first publicly challenged them earlier this year.
To their credit, Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson called out county executives, asking why we aren’t doing a better job of serving those in need – those who are camped out on our front door.
Yet it was clear from the beginning that even county supervisors aren’t exactly clear what their agencies do.
While I called on the county Social Services Agency to walk their beat and match these folks with services, supervisors called on the Health Care Agency to publicly walk the beat – even though they already do.
The next day, there was this sad table with a blue cloth – it could have featured a cartoonish sign declaring, “Crazy People Sign Up Here” – where people with mental stability issues were supposed to seek help.
Most homeless activists and service providers just scratched their heads looking at the empty table.
Who wants to talk about sensitive issues at an outdoor table?
The fact that we now have a facility in downtown Santa Ana to address homelessness shows how far our county supervisors and executives have come this year in figuring out an approach.
Now, it’s up to us as a community to band together and keep working to have the most able, energetic and entrepreneurial approach toward meeting these kinds of human needs in a way that isn’t just compassionate but also fiscally responsible.
The bus terminal puts us in a position to win this fight.
And it couldn’t come at a better time.
Norberto Santana Jr. is the publisher of Voice of OC and writes a weekly column about issues across the county. You can contact him at email@example.com.