New Homeless Service Center Draws Both Kudos and Concerns From Advocates

Kaitlin Washburn for Voice of OC

The abandoned bus terminal in Santa Ana that is now slated to be used for a homeless services center.

After years of urging by homeless advocates, the media and county employees, among others, Orange County supervisors gave final approval last week to take almost immediate action to step-up service options for the hundreds of homeless people who live on the grounds of the county Civic Center.

On Wednesday afternoon, county officials plan to open a shelter and service center in an abandoned bus terminal that sits on the Civic Center’s edge.

The 300-bed shelter – dubbed the “Courtyard Transitional Center” – will be run by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, The Midnight Mission, and offer job training, physical and mental health care, linkages to permanent housing, drug abuse treatment, and assistance to veterans.

Spearheading the county efforts on homelessness is Supervisor Andrew Do, who has described the service center as “historical.”

And so far, the effort is being cautiously welcomed by most advocates, including some who have been critical of the county’s approach to homelessness. However, one longtime advocate says its a fundamentally flawed idea and will end up bringing more homeless people to the Civic Center.

Those who are more optimistic describe it as a step in the right direction while cautioning there are still unaddressed concerns, including whether people who opt not to use the shelter will be ticketed for remaining in the Civic Center.

Igmar Rodas is a homeless advocate who sleeps in the Civic Center and rarely has good things to say about city and county officials. But he likes what the county’s doing with the service center and who they’ve hired for the job.

“They have the experience and the manpower to do it,” he said of The Midnight Mission. “They’ve been doing it for over 25 years in LA at Skid Row at a much greater scale.”

Although he his skeptical of the large-shelter approach to addressing homelessness, Paul Leon, the president and CEO the Illumination Foundation, said he’s glad to see the supervisors doing something.

“It’s just taken them too long to really move on this, but it’s better than nothing,” Leon said. “I’m really hoping that they’ll use this as a stepping stone, see some stuff that [does and doesn’t] work, and maybe move on from there.”

And Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House – which has long been the county’s go-to contractor on homeless services – said it’s a move in the right direction, and that he embraces the new service providers.

“Any time that we can increase shelter beds and housing stock for the homeless in Orange County, I celebrate it,” Haynes said. “I think it’ll make a real difference.”

Leon also welcomed other providers being brought in by the county, after many years of it being just Mercy House and the Illumination Foundation.

“I was glad to see them reach out to other areas and bring more expertise in,” Leon said. That includes bringing in Volunteers of America, Los Angeles to help with rental assistance for veterans.

But Dwight Smith – who has been serving homeless people in Santa Ana for over 20 years as part of his Catholic Worker faith – says the shelter will end up worsening the situation by drawing institutions to dump even more homeless in the Civic Center. Meanwhile, there’s still limited opportunities for homeless people to move out of the area.

“Once it’s a county shelter, every sober living [home], every city, every hospital – they’re all gonna dump [homeless people] there. And in the morning they’re gonna join the 500 people that currently live in the Civic Center,” Smith said, noting that there’s a severe shortage of permanent housing options for homeless people.

“The bus station is a fucking bus station. It’s not a shelter. It’s not a courtyard.”

Worries About Ticketing

Even among those who support the bus shelter effort, like Rodas, there are concerns about how the service center will work – particularly with issues like food providers and ticketing of homeless people who don’t go to the center.

Rodas said potential problems emerged at a meeting he attended last week between the county’s new contractor for organizing volunteers – City Net, which is run by Brad Fieldhouse – and the volunteers who have been providing food and donated goods at the Civic Center for years.

The food providers have been asked to sign up for specific time slots, Rodas said, and have been told that if they’re late they’ll lose it to another service provider.

“Those are volunteers — they don’t get paid for it,” Rodas said.

Some service providers are also concerned they’ll be ticketed if they continue feeding in the Civic Center after the shelter opens. But Smith said he and others have a constitutional right to exercise their faith by serving the homeless.

“For us, serving poor people is a religious act,” Smith said. “And as a result, I think it’s protected by the First Amendment.”

Asked about this, county officials didn’t directly say whether they’ll be stepping up enforcement efforts against food providers. But they said that while “public feedings are not illegal,” they are regulated by state health codes.

“Food providers will be encouraged to work with City Net and invited to participate in The Courtyard project to serve meals in conjunction with a safe environment where services and housing linkages are available, as part of the broader solution to their personal homelessness,” said a statement form county spokeswoman Jean Pasco.

There’s also concern about what will happen to homeless people who don’t to go to the shelter out of concern for their safety, or are stuck outside if the 60 beds for single men are full.

Santa Ana recently doubled the number of patrol officers in the Civic Center from seven officers to 14. And Rodas said he’s already been hearing about more police enforcement in the Civic Center, including tickets being issued for camping on Thursday morning.

“Whether they like it or not, some people are gonna refuse to go to the shelter,” Rodas said. “So what are the cops going to do? Ticket them out? That’s one of the biggest concerns they have.”

Santa Ana police haven’t changed what they’re doing when it comes to ticketing and enforcement at the Civic Center, said the department’s chief spokesman, Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.

Six camping tickets were issued Thursday, he said. Officers normally “give people lots of advisements, give them an opportunity to leave, then they return and those that have not left are subject to citations. So we’re not doing anything that we haven’t always done and do on a normal basis.”

Asked Thursday whether there’s been an increase in ticketing at the Civic Center, Bertagna said he would find out the next morning. But in an interview on Friday afternoon, he didn’t have an answer, saying he hadn’t checked that information.

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