County Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett is admitting something radical, also a bit refreshing, for an elected official – especially in Orange County.
Government doesn’t always work.
But it can.
When the county opened a temporary cold weather shelter during the rains last month at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center’s empty bus terminal facility, it revealed some fundamental weaknesses in the county’s homelessness response.
A few county executives, lobbyists and county supervisors reached out on my last column saying I was too tough, too blunt, on the debut of the first-ever Civic Center cold weather shelter.
Yet Bartlett – who toured the terminal herself – agreed there were holes, noting there’s more to be done, more to be thought out on how the county addresses the human explosion outside its own front door at the Civic Center.
Bartlett staunchly defended the work of county staff and Mercy House at the facility telling me, “we had so little time last weekend to get everything coordinated. Staff and Mercy House did a fantastic job given the time constraints.”
But she’s not afraid to admit that the opening of the bus terminal site showed some real weaknesses: including how guests are greeted, how bedding and snacks are provided, as well as a need to develop policies on pets and storage and deal with elements such as cold and wind.
In our conversation, she wasn’t afraid to put a close-up lens on what the county is doing – or not doing - at the Civic Center.
County boards of supervisors from decades past have paid scant attention to homelessness, virtually issuing an informal directive to avoid offering services at the Civic Center. The county’s homelessness task force also hasn’t seem to generate much momentum, evidenced by the call earlier this year by Supervisor Andrew Do to establish a homelessness Czar.
Now Supervisor Shawn Nelson did get the ball moving on a shelter discussion back when he was chairman a few years back. But Nelson seemed to go a bit dark after the site proposed for a shelter in Fullerton failed.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer has since established a shelter near the Anaheim/Orange border.
Yet beyond some sporadic movement, there has been zero leadership from the board of supervisors, rarely even a discussion, throughout the last decade.
Meanwhile, the Civic Center homeless situation is reaching crisis levels.
Homeless deaths in Orange County also have tripled since 2005.
Bartlett seems ready to lead on the issue – noting that its even time South County started talking about homelessness response.
She said she is focused on specifics and looking forward.
“We have a lot of lessons learned for the next rainy cycle,” Bartlett said of the Civic Center. “We’ll be better prepared.”
“We’re already looking at ways to improve,” Bartlett said noting that the county is looking into more screening or tarping for the bus terminal to help with winds as well as providing “heat lamps,” as my 7-year old son, Maximo, suggested to county executives upon his first walk into the facility on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend.
Bartlett is also asking some deeper questions about how Orange County gets the funding it needs to effectively address social challenges like homelessness.
For example, on health care, Bartlett notes that there’s a critical shortage of hospital beds for behavioral health patients – an issue at the Civic Center. Bartlett and Do are both working with the hospital community to see how they can make more funding available, she said.
Bartlett is also the first county supervisors’ chairperson to openly admit that Orange County has an image problem in Sacramento – where county officials need better relations to change a property tax formula that returns less resources back for local services than almost any county in the state.
Yet she also can’t change what is Orange County’s nature – flipping the bird at Sacramento at every opportunity.
Consider the last board meeting, where Do wanted to make sure that the county legislative platform contained some anti-new tax lingo – exactly the kind of stuff that angers Sacramento – and had been left out.
Bartlett politely tried to make her point that inflammatory language doesn’t belong in a legislative platform. Nonetheless, facing reelection this year, Do needed his conservative credentials bolstered a bit so the county platform was highjacked for a last-minute campaign whistle stop.
That helps Do in his re-election.
It doesn’t help the county, or the homeless.
Nonetheless, if we are to destined by our traditional politics to be the county that is forced to do the most with the least (and we like to fight Sacramento), one would think strategy and planning is key if not critical to service delivery.
Thus, we need executives who can really execute on super tight budgets and coordinate with their workforce and contractors.
We need leaders.
Yet looking at the bus terminal rollout makes it look like that isn’t happening either.
One thing, months ago, back in August when I publicly warned supervisors about the oncoming winter, then-Chairman Todd Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson ripped into county staff agreeing that the homeless response in the Civic Center needs to change.
At that meeting, they promised updates at each board meeting.
I have yet to hear another one.
Given what happened at the bus terminal during the last rains, maybe this coming week would be a good time to clue us all in on what’s the plan and offer some sort of vision.