County Gets OK From Feds to Use Bus Depot as Emergency Homeless Shelter

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

The shuttered bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana that will be used as an emergency homeless shelter.

Federal officials have given the green light for Orange County to use an abandoned bus depot as a temporary homeless shelter during rains and other “inclement weather” this El Niño season.

“Based on the information submitted, [the Federal Transit Administration] concurs in this incidental use for up to five months,” wrote Leslie Rogers, the FTA’s regional administrator for California and other states, in his letter to the Orange County Transportation Authority, which owns the facility.

The approval came Wednesday, two days after the county’s request was sent to FTA officials. So county officials have all the outside approvals they need to get access to the Santa Ana terminal once they sign a lease with OCTA, according to the transportation authority.

That lease has been signed by the county, according to county spokeswoman Jean Pasco. But she could not say how quickly the shelter beds would be available.

The development comes as homeless advocates criticize county officials for not following through on promises to provide extra shelter beds for homeless people in a year when forecasters have been predicting an unusually strong El Niño season.

On Dec. 8, supervisors voted to approve $500,000 to add up to 440 emergency shelter beds when the El Niño rains come.

But when the first set of storms came in early January, homeless people said they were not warned notified about any additional shelter space and were told by police that the already-existing armory shelters were full.

This angered homeless advocates who showed up to Tuesday’s meeting of the county Board of Supervisors.

“The county did not keep its promise to provide those 440 beds. And the storms that have already put people’s lives…at risk during the first wave of El Niño storms in early January,” said Madeleine Spencer, a local activist with the group Project Homelessness.

Spencer and ACLU representatives delivered a petition calling on supervisors to “immediately designate emergency sites to ensure the health and safety of people living outdoors.”

The petition was signed by over 1,586 people, 249 of which were are homeless in Orange County, Spencer said.

Eve Garrow, who is the ACLU of Southern California’s homelessness policy advocate, questioned the county’s decision to outsource the search for beds to Mercy House, a local non-profit that has received $45,000 from the county so far for El Niño-related services.

“Why did the county contract out this critical public health and safety function to a private organization that does not have the authority to open emergency sites and has struggled to do so?” Garrow asked.

It’s also unclear why county staff didn’t submit their plans for the terminal until after the first storms. The county staffer who could best answer that question – Community Resources Director Karen Roper – has declined to comment.

In a press release Wednesday announcing the federal approval, supervisors said county officials are working hard to alleviate the suffering of the Civic Center homeless.

“We are doing everything we can to help our homeless residents, one step at a time. This step represents one of many in our commitment to that effort,” Supervisor Shawn Nelson said in the release.

“The County is committed to doing all we can to help get people out of the rain and sheltered during the El Niño rainstorms that we know are coming,” said Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett.

A previous version of this article misidentified Leslie Rogers’ gender. We regret the error.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.