This week’s high surf advisory for Orange County’s coastal beaches is yet another reminder that weather can turn nasty, fast…

And county government executives move slow.

Especially when it comes to the vulnerable.

Hundreds of homeless people living at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center had their spirits lifted last month when county supervisors voted to purchase a nearby abandoned bus terminal that might offer some much needed temporary shelter during this year’s tough winter.

Bus terminal in Santa Ana.
Bus terminal in Santa Ana. Credit: Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

Yet when the first rains showed up a few weeks ago, the $3.2 million bus terminal was still empty – locked in a 90-day escrow – leaving hundreds of homeless soaked.

A women and her son sit outside Santa Ana bus terminal in the rain.
A women and her son sit outside Santa Ana bus terminal in the rain. Credit: Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

Last week, I compared that logic to buying an expensive umbrella and then waiting until spring to open it up.

The ACLU also has taken issue with the county, giving them a grade of “miserable” on the first storms of the season and now circulating a petition calling on the board of supervisors to get their act together and craft a better cold-weather approach for the vulnerable.

Hope for action at the Civic Center apparently seems to lie with the federal government, according to my interviews Friday afternoon and a series of recent public records requests.

We need the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to sign off on a temporary shelter lease while county officials finish their escrow, county and transportation officials acknowledge.

“The Santa Ana Transit Facility (SATT) sale to the County of Orange (County) escrow period began on December 22, 2015,” wrote OCTA Executive Jim Beil to county officials on Jan. 5.

“Any other uses of SATT in the interim, incidental or not, requires Federal Transit Administration (FTA) review and concurrence, as SATT is an FTA asset and we have to follow FTA Circular C 5010.1D, Chapter IV. The specific time frame for obtaining FTA approvals for incidental uses is uncertain.”

Ok. Getting a federal agency to move quickly isn’t easy. But it’s also not impossible.

It’s also good training for the tough kind of inter-agency dexterity that county executives will have to keep developing to solve homelessness.

At the urging of County Supervisor Andrew Do last week, county executives are working to craft a temporary lease with the Orange County Transportation Authority that they can get to the FTA.

County officials have left the Transportation Authority as the lead in talking to FTA.

“We’ve already talked to FTA, they know it’s coming,” Transportation Authority spokesman Joel Zlotnik told me last week. “Until we have something for them to look at they can’t sign off.”

Except when our crack county reporter Nick Gerda contacted FTA last Friday and asked where that process was, he got a strange answer.

“To date, FTA has not received a formal or informal request for any action concerning the use of a facility for homeless shelter services…OCTA may request an incidental use of the property, and we will evaluate that request once it is received,” was the message sent by the FTA press office.

“We’re working on it,” Zlotnick tells me, reminding me that it was only after Do’s Tuesday motion that OCTA had any formal request from the county.

Everyone involved on this keeps telling me they appreciate my “passion” on this issue (code when you’re Latino to calm down).

Yet I’m not interested in being calm.

If my mother was living outdoors at the Civic Center, I wouldn’t be calm.

Homeless grandmother Ana Reyes holds her grandson in the county Civic Center this summer.
Homeless grandmother Ana Reyes holds her grandson in the county Civic Center this summer. Credit: Norberto Santana, Jr. / Voice of OC

Isn’t that the real lesson from Martin Luther King Jr.?

Don’t be calm.

Have a dream.

My dream is to see our civic center as a center for policy innovation, compassion, fiscal responsibility…

A place where you can see up close people getting help – not being forgotten – by the hundreds.

I’d like to see that bus terminal transformed into a place that county supervisors are excited to walk their campaign donors and visiting dignitaries around. An innovative place with energy that can not only temporarily house someone, but quickly help get them back on their feet.

I first started writing about the bus terminal back in August – warning publicly about the coming winter storms and the importance of finding temporary – and long term solutions – to the Brazilian-style favela (squatters village) that county supervisors have allowed our civic center to become.

Hundreds of homeless people have increasingly called the makeshift encampment in downtown Santa Ana home for too many years, as county supervisors basically allowed the county workplace to degenerate into a sea of hopelessness and lawlessness.

A woman walks through the Orange County Civic Center.
A woman walks through the Orange County Civic Center. Credit: Nick Gerda / Voice of OC

County government in Orange County is still shy from the 1994 bankruptcy that our political elites triggered. Following that explosion – triggered by a stunning lack of financial professionalism and oversight – county government seemingly hid and focused on the Republican sport of outsourcing.

Nowhere is that hobby more entrenched than the county’s approach to homelessness.

The very first thing that Do mentioned in buying the bus terminal was to have staff issue a request for proposals (RFPs) for a service provider at the facility.

That provider will likely be the non-profit, Mercy House, because they are the only ones that ever seem to respond to these types of homeless services RFPs.

I have no issue with Mercy House.

Yet outsourcing something like the bus terminal is a mistake, a missed opportunity, maybe even cowardly.

This is a chance for the county government to grow some service muscles.

Privately, most inside the county agree. They are just nervous.

The county’s main union leader is not.

“Addressing the complex issues of homelessness in the Civic Center area will require coordination among experts throughout the county workforce to ensure the approach includes adequate expertise to address the many issues throughout the encampment, such as mental health, drug addiction and chronic health conditions,” said Orange County Employees Association General Manager Jennifer Muir.

“To hand over control of this responsibility to an outside company that lacks the same level of expertise would virtually ensure that too many homeless in the Civic Center would be left behind and that safety issues for the community will persist. This is too important a priority for the county not to control itself,” Muir added.

Muir is spot on.

It’s a unique opportunity at the Civic Center.

And lets be clear.

I am not saying the county should just open a bus terminal building and allow homeless people to wander around, expanding the problem.

This is a chance to introduce order, compassion to the area.

Executives, like OC Community Services head Karen Roper herself, should be walking the grounds – talking to people and letting them know what’s coming.

There should already be scoping work on the grounds.

Where to put storage lockers, tarps, portable bathrooms, cots, heating lamps, a charging station for laptops, free phone calls to family and county service stations like social services, health care, job recruitment, veterans benefits – maybe even a Sheriff’s Department (deputies or special officers) substation presence to heighten safety.

It’s a simple concept. But it will take work.

Yet talking to county executives, you get a sense they are like field generals waiting around on D-Day for the invasion to actually start before they start doing anything.

Recently, one county executive privately joked with me he thought I’d apply for the county homeless services Czar position – ostensibly needed to coordinate the county’s vast agencies, powers and budgets – to solve the most basic human drama facing us in Orange County.

However, I’d challenge county officials that all the direction they need is in these columns.

What you need is willpower, not an executive.

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