Santana: OC Civic Center Homeless Need Shelter Now

Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

A homeless man stands in the rain at the Orange County Civic Center.

Can you imagine buying an umbrella in winter and then waiting until spring to use it?

That seems to be the approach the County of Orange is taking toward a massive $3.2 million abandoned bus terminal near the Orange County Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana that county supervisors agreed to buy last month.

The block-sized bus terminal was expected to give the large homeless population at the civic center a temporary covered area during this coming season of tough storms.

The hope also was that the facility might even allow the county to start developing some real institutional muscle memory when it comes to service delivery for vulnerable populations.

Except when the rains arrived earlier this week, all those people remained outside.

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Meanwhile, incredibly, the large, covered bus terminal remains empty.

Bus terminal in Santa Ana.

Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

Bus terminal in Santa Ana.

When pressed by local activists horrified at the scenes from the civic center deluge this week, county and city executives meekly pointed out that until the escrow on the purchase is finalized – which will take 90 days – they can’t possibly do anything to utilize this asset for an immediate, public emergency need.

“I’m just stunned,” said Santa Ana activist Madeleine Spencer, who has been trying to get officials to act to provide temporary shelter at the civic center area and sent the photos highlighted above to a series of local officials. “I’m stunned at the lack of leadership and the lack of humanity involved in understanding what happens when a person is cold, wet and has no roof over the head,” Spencer told me.

I also found that kind of official fecklessness so lame that I couldn’t sit still and had to start challenging people, which is what I spent yesterday doing.

A trillion dollar bailout for the financial community was approved over a weekend when they needed it back in 2008.

Yet we can’t get several hundred homeless people into a covered shelter being purchased by taxpayers within a stone’s throw of where these folks are sitting outside in the rain?

With a virtual army of local elected officials, members of Congress, public sector lobbyists and tons of offices of legislative affairs — we can’t convince some Washington, D.C. bureaucrat at the Federal Transit Administration that a simple escrow amendment between seller and purchaser is quickly needed to allow the place to be used as a temporary shelter during historic storms?

Today, that call is being made.

Once I reached Supervisor Andrew Do – who represents the civic center area – he acknowledged that county officials should act.

“It’s all about willpower,” Do said.

“I’m going to instruct the CEO and the County to contact the Federal Transit Administration and if necessary work through our congressional delegation to authorize use of the Santa Ana Transit Terminal during inclement weather until the end of escrow,” he added.

Orange County Transportation Authority Spokesman Joel Zlotnik said OCTA legislative liason officials would be reaching out to federal transit officials today to see how an emergency shelter response for the terminal could be authorized.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson also acknowledged it was important to highlight the need for immediate action and keep elected officials accountable.

While county officials have been moving in recent months to step up homelessness efforts, he acknowledges “that doesn’t get the rain off somebody’s back this week.”

“We’re not doing enough,” Nelson said, adding that elected officials can often collectively get distracted as they deal with packed agendas on myriad agencies.

Jennifer Muir, general manager for the Orange County Employees Association, also expressed frustration with the situation.

“Rain has been pounding the Civic Center area all day, and it’s heartbreaking to see so many struggling and shivering, their belongings under blue tarps, in the encampments here,” Muir said.

“County workers have been working diligently to provide assistance, but there is no replacement for shelter from the rain,” said Muir adding, “We strongly support efforts to open temporary shelters, such as the bus terminal, in these winter months and are committed to helping advance these efforts in any way we can.”

Karen Roper, who heads OC Community Services, will tell you this past year Orange County made real progress on assembling the beginnings of a shelter system, calling it a “banner year.”

And looking over recent staff reports on how many people are being contacted and steered to housing options, it’s clear county workers are making progress.

(Click here to read the agency’s 2015 Action Plan.)

Yet ACLU officials and a series of community activists recently lambasted the county in an open letter this month (Click here to read letter) saying supervisors just haven’t put in the money necessary to address tough systemic problems like sheltering or the lack of affordable housing, which directly feeds chronic homelessness.

The real truth about the county’s commitment to the vulnerable is on display at the civic center grounds.

  • David Zenger

    Building 16 is empty as Pharaoh’s tomb. The basement can be accessed via an outside ramp.

  • LFOldTimer

    Does anyone recall during Hurricane Katrina when the government brought in large cargo containers and made living domiciles out of them for thousands of the homeless victims? Why couldn’t the same method be used in OC? It wouldn’t cost that much. It would keep the homeless warm and dry and prevent illnesses caused by exposure that are extremely expensive to treat medically. The County has plots of land where these cargo containers could be placed. This is expecially critical during the colder winter months. If a commoner like me could come up with this viable solution to our homeless problem in the OC why couldn’t the $six-figure$ bureaucrats who sit on the OC Commission to End Homelessness think of it? I guess the bureaurats have to have the will to fix the problem before any progress could be expected. If the will isn’t there the solution is nothing more than a futile afterthought. Bureaucrats generally don’t have to show progress to collect a paycheck. The value of a bureaucrat is not measured by what he or she actually gets done – his or her value is measured by how he or she looks while going through their bureaucratic motions. Almost like an actor in a Hollywood movie. Every good bureaucrat knows this.

  • L Santos

    Does anyone remember the stench in the Civic Center Parking structure when they allowed the “homeless” to use it years ago. I bet no one advocating for the quick opening of the transit center smelled that horrible odor.
    The sad reality is that once they are in the structure they won’t leave and more will come and downtown Santa Ana will become a cesspool when legitimate efforts are underway to gentrify it.
    Why isn’t anyone talking about why they are homeless? Where are their families? How many are out on early release thanks to Prop 47
    How about using some of that county employee PENSION money to house the homeless? If those funds were at risk, the OCEA GM might not be such a big advocate of opening up the transit center.

    • LFOldTimer

      “How about using some of that county employee PENSION money to house the homeless? If those funds were at risk, the OCEA GM might not be such a big advocate of opening up the transit center”
      ha. Very funny, Mr/Ms Santos. If pension funds were at risk to help the homeless – OCEA would let the homeless eat cake. It’s one of those dirty little secrets that everyone knows – but few would say. 🙂

    • Dylan

      How many don’t have families? How many were veterans and now suffer from debilitating mental conditions? How many were financially and physically devastated from a medical emergency? How many are just out of work?

      There are reasons that many would find to be illegitimate, but should everyone be punished for that?

      Perhaps if there were more people who cared less about an unpleasant odor and more about other peoples right to basic shelter, then the people that need and want the help could get it. Also, if people were offered access to basic sanitation, something that is recognized by the UN as a human right, then you wouldn’t be inconvenienced by such unpleasant odors.

      Clearly doing nothing, or suppressing and criminalizing the issue has not worked in the last few decades. Its time to try a proactive approach, provide emergency services and put more money into permanent supportive housing.

    • OCservant_Leader

      I know the “stench” smell well. Where do you think the homeless currently find shelter? In the bus terminal’s 4 floor parking garage- every night. Take a ride in the elevator – right now – I dare ya.

      The body fluids left behind on a daily basis is a a health hazard the BOS allow the County workers and the public drudge through every day, spreading disease. This is the result of a decade of “soft” policy directives to ignore the obvious and stuff their pockets with tax diollars before they get run out.

      Since public funds are used to pay a private entity…what is going on here?

      Who manages these contracts? Can’t we make the private entity either put up fencing to keep the homeless out, or pay for a 24-hour guard or make them disinfectant the space? Who can we get to review this public health hazard?

      The OCEA members are victims of the BOS policies just like the public- including the homeless.

      This subject – of the County “parking” leases – is a corruption scandal a journalism intern could win a Pulitzer for uncovering.

  • Greg Diamond

    I’m going to keep saying this, and I’m going to use capital letters.


    Isn’t that better than allowing people to suffer this year and then getting all weepy after more of them die — perhaps more likely from pneumonia than from something dramatic like drowning?

  • OCservant_Leader

    What is the real reason no one will disclose what is going on here?

    Why did the OCTA Brass leave the headquarters ?

    Why did the bus terminal close?

    Vof OC can you find out more historical data about the site – like are there any environmental issues and who is profiting?

  • Madeleine Spencer

    City Manager David Cavazos had Kelly Reenders and someone named Justin called to tell me that an RFP had been put out two and a half weeks ago about the emergency shelter situation Mercy House was the only respondant. The RFP was seeking a provider to locate a temporary emergency shelter to be activated for weather and risk throughout Orange County related to El Nino. Mercy House was awarded since they are somehow the only eligible entity in the County to do the job. Reenders said they had been sitting with Mercy House since 7:00 am, the morning of the call, trying to secure a site but had no luck. I asked about the garage beside the library for folks to sleep on dry ground and she said she was concerned about liability. I asked what basic understanding is missing in the cities understanding about how folks get sick. As understood by members of Civic Center Round Table the privately owned building and garage at Everest College parking garage, which is secure, was suggested and Reenders said she knew the owner and would look into it. I have not heard back on the situation and wonder if any movement has been made by the city on this front. The city and county as unusual is behind, I also find our officials out of touch and seemingly callous. This is a moment in Orange County History when Real Vision and Moral leadership is required for any kind of ethical response to be taken.

  • Kathleen Tahilramani

    Those photos show what an absolute pit of human misery the Civic Center has become. What an embarrassment and a shame. I am sure that there are many complicated steps remaining to opening the bus terminal to provide much needed service to the homeless. All I can say is that the BOS are pretty skilled at crafting and jumping thru hoops and hurdles to get what they want – case in point Nelson and his pension benefits. They are also skilled at using hoops and hurdles to throw up their hands in mock despair declaring we have done all we can do…..blame, finger pointing …blah blah blah. Let’s see how skilled they really are at dealing with this problem – hopefully before the next downpour.