Santana: Homeless Camp Now Keeping People From Jury Duty

Orange County’s head of superior courts has put county supervisors on notice in stark terms that the situation with the homeless encampment at the county Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana is deteriorating so badly that it may soon be a challenge to get people to show up for jury duty.

“I am becoming increasingly concerned about the negative effect that the nearby homeless encampments are having on the cooperation of citizens summoned for jury service,” wrote OC Superior Courts CEO Alan Carlson last week in a letter to county supervisors. “As the homeless population continues to grow, we are now receiving an increasing number of complaints from potential jurors who have been hesitant and, in some cases, unwilling to serve on a jury at the Central Justice Center,” Carlson wrote.

Carlson notes rising complaints from court workers and members of the public – more than a million people walk through that courthouse each year – pointing out that the south side of the courthouse has a urine smell that is “overwhelming” while court windows witness homeless people urinating and dumping “potty buckets.”

Even blood trails have been spotted, Carlson wrote.

“One Saturday several weeks ago a crew of plumbers was working on repairs for the court outside the courthouse when they were attacked by several rock-throwing homeless individuals,” Carlson wrote. “The plumbers were forced to abandon the job, and they subsequently refused to return to the court to finish their work.”

(Read Carlson’s May 17 letter on Civic Center-Central Justice Center Homeless Issues.)

Carlson’s letter is a strong rebuke to the collective victory dance by county supervisors over their very recent awakening to the homeless problem – buying a few properties, hiring a homelessness care coordinator and seeking more flexibility with state mental health funding.

It is true that after decades of inaction, county supervisors – led by their colleague Supervisor Andrew Do (who just happens to be up for re-election this year) have indeed taken some concrete steps over this year.

Do has broadly publicized his efforts (even quoting my column) in mailers to effectively help his reelection (he needs to gain a majority in the upcoming June primary to avoid a runoff).

Yet despite my repeated public warnings at how ugly the tent city is becoming at the civic center over the past year, county supervisors really haven’t done that much to change that situation on the ground.

Recently, one woman who came by the Civic Center to pay her taxes couldn’t help but stop by to publicly lambast supervisors at how they have mismanaged the area.

She’s right.

And supervisors are lucky more taxpayers don’t show up regularly to inspect the premises.

The truth is that supervisors haven’t moved anywhere near quickly enough on this issue – at least not for me.

In the year since I first challenged supervisors to start addressing the county homeless problem at their own civic center, the situation on the ground has gotten visibly worse with more people, more tents…less hope.

Keep in mind that countless numbers of non-profits have tried to engage county supervisors on addressing the problem in recent years…with little to no luck.

The governing sentiment was simple: don’t offer poor people services or you will attract more.

Using conservative ideology as a shield, Orange County supervisors just haven’t engaged in what is their main job: running a massive, regional health and social service agency.

The look of the Civic Center grounds is the clearest benchmark that county supervisors don’t want to work.

Keep in mind that supervisors’ much-publicized effort to set up a shelter on the Anaheim/Orange border won’t even be up and running for a year.

And no one knows what it will really do.

Supervisors bought the abandoned bus terminal adjacent to the Civic Center – at my public urging – but they don’t seem to be interested in using it to provide immediate services to homeless people at the Civic Center in an orderly fashion.

They barely used it to shelter the homeless during the winter storms (again, at my public pressing).

Earlier this month, Supervisor Shawn Nelson made sure to point out that the new homeless shelter means that the Fullerton National Guard Armory won’t be open this next fall.

That means county supervisors recent actions may have actually reduced the amount of available beds next fall.

I’m even a bit suspicious that the much publicized effort by supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett and Do to press the state for more flexibility on mental health funding is simply a move to get more money for local hospitals, which are known for giving to supervisors’ campaigns.

One thing is clear with politicians.

Few follow through.

Consider Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s impassioned speech at this 2012 swearing in ceremony where he called the county’s homeless situation at he civic center “shameful.”

As Spitzer enters his unopposed re-election campaign this year, that homeless situation is still very much shameful.

In fact, one recent county action may even make it worse.

In Trump-worthy fashion, county officials in recent weeks put up a large green construction fence around a large portion of the county homeless encampment near the county Treasurer-Tax Collector’s building – effectively cutting off access to what I’ve recently started calling America’s angriest KOA campground.

The new green wall has essentially pushed many of the homeless people onto the west side of the Civic Center, which is near Santa Ana City Hall and the court’s building.

So Orange County supervisors put up a wall.

And Santa Ana gets to pay for it.

It’s exactly the kind of political payback that Nelson hinted at last month expressing his own frustration with Santa Ana city officials’ lack of engagement on the homeless problem at the Civic Center as well as opposition to another homeless shelter site Nelson and county officials proposed.

While county officials told me the construction work at the civic center has been long planned, they also admit privately there was zero effort on outreach as they effectively closed off what has become a large, open-lawn campground.

Now while it may feel good to mess with the Santa Ana City Council, there are other impacts, such as the courts.

“A significant number of court staff are also expressing concerns about the health and safety conditions outside the courthouse,” Carlson wrote. “There is quite a bit of concern relating to conditions adjacent to the back entrance of the Central Justice Center and the employee parking structure near the Stadium. Staff members have witnessed the homeless emptying their “potty buckets” in the bushes near the back entrance of the courthouse, and observed feces in the bushes adjacent to the courthouse as well as in the stairwell in the library-parking garage. There is a constant puddle of urine by the east side of the building at the base of the emergency stairwell, and individuals often urinate very near the courthouse, occasionally in front of courthouse windows.”

County supervisors need to show leadership here and seriously develop the county’s own capacity to quickly and effectively take action on homelessness – especially at the Civic Center.

They do control a $6 billion bureaucracy, with nearly half of it already supposedly focused on health and social services.

There shouldn’t be a sea of homeless people at the county Civic Center.

After all, that’s why you have a public sector; because it can move quickly, effectively and economically to immediately address health and social service emergencies.

Supervisors need to embrace that challenge.

They need to stop pointing to building purchases and requests for contractors…

They should instead start living up to their campaign mail.