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.