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

  • Roy Reynolds

    There’s more room at ARTIC. And (probably) functioning toilets.

  • Ed Romero

    I don’t know what the plan for the homeless is at that Bus Depot, but I use to stop there to change buses when my Truck was in repair. It was a very scary place, too many Drug Pushers and lots of individuals just looking for trouble.
    I believe the Santa Ana Police Department or the Orange County Sheriff Department are going to have their hands full of problems once the homeless move in.

  • LFOldTimer

    I’ve never visited this bus depot. Is there a large indoor area or is most of it in the open air? So do the homeless put their sleeping bags on the cold hard concrete? What exactly is the plan here? Does anyone know? Have they thought that far in advance? Or is this just another knee-jerk ‘feel good warm and fuzzy’ ploy to appease the peasants? What exactly does this accomplish other than keeping the rain off the homeless which could be accomplished by constructing an aluminum covering over the grass at the library at 1/8 the cost? Not being sarcastic. I’m sincere. Is this a cost effective way to address the problem? I haven’t been to the Civic Center bus depot so I don’t know the design.

    • David Zenger

      It has a roof over it and some peripheral wall but it is otherwise open. There are bathrooms.

      It will be very interesting to see how this “investment” works out.

  • Paul Lucas

    Congrats on the success of this Norberto.

  • David Zenger

    “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.

    Complete nonsense, of course. That bus shelter idea was proposed by John Moorlach FIVE YEARS AGO.

    The basement of Building 16 could be opened up to the homeless before the next rain drop falls – if anybody really cared.

    • LFOldTimer

      Maybe the Sheriff wants to convert Building 16 into a jail so she can expand the ‘Beds for Feds’ program. Easy money and she can hire a bunch of new deputies at $150k a year. Just use throwaway plastic bedsheets instead of the cloths ones. That way she won’t have to hire bedsheet counters or give them pensions. Although it might be a good idea to hire someone to guard the plumbing routes in the building and a few hacksaw detectors. Oh, and so the inmates don’t just sit around with a bunch of free time on their hands to think of ways to escape why not think of new ways to occupy their time? How ’bout a video game tournament between the inmates and the deputies? I know that the deputies would have a huge advantage from a practice standpoint but it might prevent future escapes.

      • David Zenger

        Four years ago the Building 16 site was the center of one of Janet Nguyen’s shakedown operations – a grand swindle in which the public was going to finance a private developer to build a new Admin Building and then lease it back to the County. Of course the campaign coffer kickback opportunities were mined by all of them.

        The County’s real estate professionals were hard at work on that one. I remember someone named Gail Dennis referring to it as a “journey of discovery.” And no I am not making that up.

        • LFOldTimer

          I wonder if some of these county workers were former Disney employees recruited from the costume design department? Wild imaginations.

        • Vern Pat Nelson

          Really? “Sleasing,” me and San Roman dubbed that scheme back when Schwarzenegger and Pulido were trying to do that all over the state. I missed Janet’s sleasing attempt.

          • David Zenger

            Similar. Arnold’s plans were to sell State buildings with guaranteed lease deals so as to generate cash up front.

            The County deal was to build a new building under the “lease back” formula.