An open letter to Orange County’s board of supervisors.

We are contacting you to express concern regarding the lack of emergency services and basic sanitation for our neighbors without housing throughout Orange County. Historically, Santa Ana’s Civic Center has been the county’s epicenter of homelessness. Yet, no one city can or should bear the costs of this serious social problem alone.

The spatial concentration of homelessness, especially in the absence of adequate sanitation facilities, creates serious public health and safety hazards. Building emergency shelters along with permanent supportive housing and affordable housing throughout the entire county is the only responsible and equitable way to address homelessness in the region. In the meantime, providing access to basic sanitation and clean water where our homeless neighbors currently reside will improve health and safety outcomes, and will also help the county comply with basic human rights as recognized by the United Nations (Resolution 64/292).

What we are asking the Orange County Board of Supervisors to do is to go beyond mere compliance with Senate Bill 2 (SB 2) by requiring that every city in Orange County, according to population size, will establish emergency shelters within its respective state-sanctioned SB 2 zones.

Although compliance is met by simply designating within the housing element a zone where emergency shelters may be erected without conditional use permits, the Board must push cities countywide to go beyond this bare minimum standard for the following reasons.

Homelessness is a critical health and safety issue which affects us all.

By some estimates, the homeless encampment in the Santa Ana Civic Center exceeds 400 people, and it continues to grow. Residents of the Civic Center have access to only a few open bathrooms, and no regular access to showers. The dark corners of the Civic Center grounds substitute for a toilet, and cold water from sinks and spigots of local businesses and government buildings substitutes for a shower. The lack of basic sanitation facilities creates a public health risk that affects everyone who lives and works in the area.

Other serious health care issues, including outbreaks of the flu and staphylococcus pyogenes, commonly sweep through the Civic Center. Recently, many people have been afflicted with shingles. The county provides insufficient health care to take care of such matters.

Public safety is another ongoing issue, as exemplified by the recent murder of Rudy Correa at Heritage Park on December 13, 2015. Instead of providing the necessary public health and safety services to people living in the Civic Center, city government sweeps their belongings and issues them tickets for camping. These policies impose an additional and unnecessary burden on people who are already struggling.

Expenses relating to management of homelessness issues may be more efficiently spent on solving the root causes of homelessness.

Because funding for homeless assistance programs and plans is limited, counties and cities must be strategic about using designated resources efficiently. Unfortunately, the amount of funds currently being spent to merely maintain issues related to homelessness would be more effectively spent on proactively addressing the root issues which cause and exacerbate homelessness itself.

For example, as part of the city of Santa Ana’s Settlement and Release Agreement with Business Improvement District groups in its downtown, the city funds a “Clean & Safe” program for $400,000 a year. However, a majority of these funds intended to be used for general security purposes are instead directed towards calls to clear homeless from the area. The attached Security Reports American Shield Private Security show that an excessive amount of service calls are for removal of homeless and transients for sleeping on the sidewalk. If cities, acting in unison through countywide initiatives, spent more money on services to help prevent homelessness in the first place, the beneficial net effect would be seen by residents and businesses who would no longer have to make such calls to security. The county must double down on proactive efforts, such as public restroom accessibility, check-in centers for storage, transitional housing, and emergency rental assistance, among others, which will have greater far-reaching effects than any reactive responses.

Compliance with housing element law does not end in the planning phase.

The latest Orange County Homeless Point-in-Time Report approximates that there were 4,452 homeless living in Orange County in 2015. An estimated number of 400 people reside in homeless encampments in the Santa Ana Civic Center. Already, nearly ten percent of the entire county’s homeless population is serviced by an area less than a quarter of a square mile of a single city in the county. Although the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) has found the adopted housing element of nearly every city in Orange County to be compliant with State housing element law—with the exception of Huntington Beach, San Clemente, and Villa Park—there is a clear discrepancy between the overwhelming demands placed on some cities as compared to others.

The California Court of Appeals has expressly recognized the need for active coordination between the state, county, and city in achieving housing objectives, noting that the Legislature requires “cooperative participation between the government and private sector, cooperation among all levels of government, and use of state and local governmental power to facilitate the improvement and development of housing for all economic segments of the community.” Hoffmaster v. City of San Diego, 55 Cal. App. 4th 1098, 1106-07 (1997) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). To that end, the county must be willing to step in and investigate or help alleviate imbalanced distresses on the overall system.

There are grave penalties if these distresses are allowed to develop into something greater. If cities do not meet requirements for housing element certification, they will be ineligible to qualify for substantial financial grants from HCD. Any interested person may bring a petition for a writ of mandate for court review of the conformity of a city or county’s housing element. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65587(b). If a court finds that the actions of a city or county is not consistent with or does not comply with its housing element, then it must bring its action into compliance within 60 days. Cal. Gov’t Code § 65587(c).

The homelessness crisis is a matter of keen public interest. Project Homelessness, a coalition including residents, businesses, activists, and not-for-profit organizations, is writing to urge you to begin to work on this issue in a more equitable, far-reaching, and sustainable manner. The county needs a comprehensive, regional, and federated emergency shelter system. The recent selection of a shelter site in Anaheim is a good first step, but it is not sufficient. No one city should be forced to address the homelessness crisis in our county. Rather, the county must continue to move forward to develop additional shelter sites across the region. Additional shelters should be prioritized in Orange County’s four largest cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine and Huntington Beach), where the need for emergency shelter is currently most pressing and critical.

The county can further this objective by going beyond mere compliance with Senate Bill 2 (SB 2) via a dictate that every city in Orange County, according to population size, will establish emergency shelters within its respective state-sanctioned SB 2 zones. Finally, we call on the Board to recognize the need for affordable, permanent, and supportive housing as a whole.

People who are currently living in the Civic Center and other outdoor locations would not be in need of emergency shelter services if they were safely housed. The Board must ensure that its own Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and “Housing First” strategy is adequately funded and implemented.

Madeleine Spencer, Project Homelessness Coalition

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

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