County’s ‘Courtyard’ Homeless Shelter Gets Mixed Reviews

David Washburn/Voice of OC

The scene at the county's new homeless shelter a few weeks after after it opened.

Nearly two months since its debut, the new homeless shelter that Orange County runs out of an abandoned bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana is getting mixed reviews from the people it serves and homeless advocates.

On one hand, the shelter, which county officials have dubbed the “Courtyard,” is providing a safe resting place for hundreds of people each night, with the population on some nights reaching well over 400.

And beyond being a place for homeless people to sleep, shower, do laundry and store their belongings, it has become a hub that connects people to services like medical clinics, veterans’ benefits and legal aid.

“I think we’ve exceeded a lot of people’s expectations – even mine – with regards to our ability to gain the trust of a population who’s been outside for a number of years,” said Susan Price, the county’s homeless services coordinator. “To get up over 300 [people sleeping there each night] in 30 days is pretty amazing.”

The shelter and its staff have helped some homeless people reunite with their families, treat drug and alcohol addiction, and obtain housing, according to county officials.

And in addition to what its done for homeless people, Jennifer Muir, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), said the Courtyard is a step in the right direction toward making the Civic Center a safer place to work.

“It’s great that the shelter got opened so quickly and that it seems to be providing a space for people who have been living in the Civic Center to go,” said Muir, who represents most of the county’s 20,000 employees. “Now is the time for the camping laws to be enforced in the Civic Center area because it’s unsafe for the public…and it’s unsafe for the workers.”

But problems have also emerged at the shelter, including complaints about how the staff from The Midnight Mission, the nonprofit group hired by the county to run the shelter, interacts with the homeless people they serve.

Some complain that the staff, who also serve as security guards, get inappropriately upset at homeless people, many of whom have mental illnesses. One guard swatted a homeless man’s phone as he was taking video on a sidewalk, calling him a “bitch” and “another nut” before a supervisor intervened, according to a video of the exchange.

Others have described the staff ignoring the pleas of a 17-year-old homeless girl who was trying to join her family in the shelter late one night.

Progress and Concern

Significantly reducing the homeless population at the county’s Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana was one of the main goals officials cited when they opened the shelter. Progress has been made on that front, with county surveys showing a drop of homeless people in the Civic Center during the day from 461 people before the shelter to a little under 200 as of earlier this month.

But officials acknowledge that much work remains.

“Certain sections [of the Civic Center] look as crowded as they’ve ever looked, unfortunately,” said Brad Fieldhouse, whose nonprofit group City Net was hired by the county to coordinate volunteers, during a meeting with providers.

Meanwhile, hospitals and organizations from other parts of the county are routinely dropping people off at the new shelter, which has been stretched past capacity.

“We’ve got local hospitals discharging people to the Courtyard, which is very challenging, and in many cases likely not an appropriate discharge…for people with significant medical issues,” Price said.

Much of the capacity problem will likely be relieved, albeit temporarily, next Monday when an extra 400 beds come online in Santa Ana and Fullerton at the county’s cold-weather armory shelters. Those shelters will be open until April.

But even if the Courtyard succeeds in reducing the Civic Center population, county officials still appear to be a long way from their ultimate goal of finding people permanent housing.

“It gives somebody immediate shelter, but now the really hard work” needs to happen, said Paul Leon, president and CEO of the Illumination Foundation, which has been working with the county to provide housing and support services for homeless people.

While 3,058 single men and women were homeless during last year’s point-in-time count, there are just 1,624 rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing beds for them, according to county figures.

“We definitely want to shift our focus to how the community can help us shelter and house this population,” said Price. Since the new shelter opened, about 15 people have been referred into housing, she said.

Her bosses on the Board of Supervisors – who oversee county policy and budgets – so far haven’t shown interest in figuring out how to fund a significant expansion of affordable housing for the homeless, whether that’s through public funds, outside fundraising, or a mixture of both.

One manifestation of the lack of housing options, advocates say, is the drop-offs at the shelter by hospitals and other health providers.

Many drug rehab centers and mental health providers across Orange County are now sending people to the Courtyard, according to Dwight Smith, a longtime advocate and volunteer for Orange County’s homeless.

“Now at last the taxpayers will see what social workers have always seen – there’s no point to being a social worker if there’s no place to refer anybody, because our mental health budget is deplorable,” Smith said.

Issues With Midnight Mission

Beyond the long-term housing issue, Smith and others are seeing more immediate problems with how Midnight Mission has been operating the Courtyard.

Smith, who volunteers his time serving food at the shelter, and said many of the Midnight Mission staff, who also serve as security guards, don’t know how to properly deal with people who have mental illnesses, who are a large portion of the homeless population.

“I can’t think of a worse vendor, because clearly those people don’t have a whole lot of experience in dealing with hungry, lonely, angry people,” Smith said.

He said two of the staffers have told him they have felony convictions, with one saying he was a former gang member. And Smith said he was told that when one of the homeless people got in an argument with a security guard, the guard “took off his vest and kicked him in the head.”

Mike Arnold, CEO and president of Midnight Mission, disputed such accounts, saying violence is coming from homeless people against his staff.

“We’re really trying to make this as welcoming, as friendly, as safe as we possibly can. And we’re balancing things with very sick people,” he said.

As for the guards’ backgrounds, some of them are graduates of a Midnight Mission substance abuse program in Los Angeles, where people can live and work for the organization after graduating from the program.

Some may have felony convictions, Arnold said, “but I can tell you this – they are all really good people” who turned their lives around and “really understand the issue” of homelessness because they themselves have some of the same issues.

Advocates, meanwhile, have pointed to specific incidents they say underlie their concerns about staff

In one video, a homeless man and activist, Igmar Rodas, is filming on a public sidewalk in front of the shelter when a guard grabs at his camera and tells him to leave the area. The guard later calls Rodas a “bitch” before radioing his supervisor to say “we got another nut out here.”

The supervisor, Emanuel Davis, then comes out and calmly de-escalates the situation, telling the guard to leave the area while letting Rodas be.

Regarding the video, Arnold said Rodas, who has written articles on the Courtyard for Voice of OC, baited the guard into a confrontation and then falsely claimed he was assaulted.

“I didn’t see anything there,” Arnold said of the video.

Also concerning to advocates was the situation involving a 17-year-old girl who was denied access to the shelter.

Her father, Miguel Hurtado – who is also homeless – says she arrived after 10 p.m. to sleep at the shelter, which had been promoted as a 24-hour-a-day facility, but found the door locked. She tried to get the guards’ attention by shouting, to no avail, Hurtado told Rodas in a video interview.

“They wouldn’t even pay attention. They ignored it, like totally ignored it, like they didn’t even care,” Hurtado said of the shelter staff. “My daughter was yelling and screaming, and nobody answered the damn door.”

Arnold said the incident was a mistake on the second or third night of the shelter being open, when there was a shift change among staff and no one indicated to the staff on shift that Hurtado’s daughter would be coming in later.

“That was an isolated event that was an opening hiccup. It was unfortunate,” he said, adding that policies were developed to ensure that something like that “never happens again.”

There have also been reports that officials at the shelter, which is where food and bathrooms have been relocated, have made some people wait for food and other services based on a badge system.

Early last week, homeless residents staying the night were issued orange “Resident” badges. Those who didn’t have badges went to the shelter the next day for food, bathrooms or showers were told by staff they had to wait for people with badges to go first, according to interviews conducted by Rodas, a homeless man and activist.

One man said that when he tried to get a badge, he was told they weren’t being handed out.

Price confirmed last week that a badge system was in the works, but said food and other services are still open to everyone during the day. Asked if she disputes accounts that access was being restricted last week based on badges, Price said she was “unable to confirm or speculate.”

Additionally, several volunteers who have long served food in the Civic Center are upset about being told by police to move their feeding into the shelter. Some have said they’ve been threatened with arrest if they continue feeding in the Civic Center.

A video by Rodas shows officers acknowledging they’ve been telling food providers to move to the shelter, and that they could enforce county health codes if providers don’t move.

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