Santa Ana Launches Program to Get Civic Center Homeless Into Housing

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

A homeless man rests outside the Santa Ana Library.

With hundreds of homeless people continuing to camp at the Santa Ana Civic Center, city leaders are embarking on a new way to address the issue.

On Tuesday night, the Santa Ana City Council hired a nonprofit to bring together a wide variety of groups – from volunteers to religious organizations, nonprofits, activists, businesses, and government agencies – to collaborate on getting Civic Center homeless people set up with housing.

The arrangement with Long-Beach based City Net calls for placing 30 homeless people into housing each quarter, for a total of 120 people during the year-long contract.

It marks the first time in recent memory that city or county leaders have set a goal of placing a specific number of Civic Center homeless into housing on an ongoing basis.

“I do believe that we are going to see a dramatic change in our city,” said Pastor Daniel de León, who was representing City Net at Tuesday night’s meeting. He said the nonprofit has been moving 30 to 40 people off the streets every month in Anaheim, which hired the group for similar work.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez said that while addressing homelessness is mostly a county government responsibility, the city is stepping up and working on it.

“We’re not making excuses. We’re willing to roll up our sleeves and collaborate with the county and with other partners to [ensure] that we address this issue head on,” Martinez said.

The vote to approve the $180,000 contract was 5-0, with council members Vincent Sarmiento and Angelica Amezcua absent from the meeting. Half of the funding – $90,000 – will come from the city and the other half from the county government.

The vote came a day after Santa Ana police shot a homeless man in front of City Hall. Several key details are still unknown, though a police spokesman said the man was being detained by two officers when he reached for one of their guns. The homeless man, Richard Gene Swihart, was still in the hospital in critical condition as of Tuesday evening.

City Net is headed by Executive Director Brad Fieldhouse and, in addition to Anaheim, has been hired by La Habra for similar work on homelessness. Santa Ana’s contract is with the nonprofit’s legal name, Kingdom Causes, Inc.

The new effort comes amid an explosion in the Civic Center homeless population in recent years, with the city estimating that 400 homeless people camp in the area during the day daytime and another 100 come at night.

The situation has put government employees in the Civic Center on edge as assaults against workers have been reported. As a result, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department announced last week that it will be training judges and court workers on how to protect themselves as they walk in the Civic Center between their cars and offices.

The main branch of the Santa Ana Public Library, which is in the Civic Center, has also been significantly affected, with city staff saying that needles have been discovered on the library grounds.

“This should be very concerning,” said Martinez. “This is serious and we should not have those kinds of needles exposed to our children and our families.”

Council members on Tuesday approved $160,000 in extra security guard services at city libraries, the vast majority of which is for the main library in the Civic Center.

This change to the city’s contract with the British multinational security firm G4S, increases the number of security guards at the main library from one to four. The increase, which is nearly twice as much as the city is allocating for the homeless housing effort, brings the total cost of library security guards to $245,000 this year.

The county government “has shifted a lot of folks on [to] our end” of the Civic Center through its recent construction project, added Martinez, who is running for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

The city’s last major Civic Center homelessness project was a contract with the nonprofit Mercy House to establish a check-in center for homeless people’s belongings.  That $200,000 project was approved in December 2014, but 19 months later, the promised check-in center hasn’t materialized.

Cities across the country have had success lately with placing chronically homeless people into permanent housing with support services, though Orange County’s supply is currently considered to be far below what is needed to get a sizable portion of the homeless population off the streets.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday what type of housing the City Net collaborative would be placing homeless people in or who would be covering the cost of it.

Larry “Smitty” Smith, a prominent Civic Center homeless advocate, thanked the council for its progress so far, but said more work still needs to be done.

“We can’t stop right now,” he said. “We have a long way to go.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.