It’s more important than ever this year that we stand by groups like the Midnight Mission as we all try to do what’s never really been done before in Orange County.
Offer homeless people a concrete strategy toward recovery.
Yet we will all have to work together to find and finance our way there.
And it won’t be easy.
The core of the County of Orange's approach is increasingly developing inside a retrofitted bus terminal at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center, abruptly dubbed the Courtyard Transition Center last year by county officials amidst a charged election campaign for county supervisor that deployed the homeless response center on a 30-day deadline last October.
For many homeless activists at the Civic Center, the bus terminal was a significant achievement.
“We’ve been pushing for something like this, a place to get people off the streets,” said Larry “Smitty” Smith, a homeless activist who lived at the Civic Center in recent years.
“We got exactly what we wanted,” said Smith, who has himself in the last few months moved into permanent housing along with becoming employed with the Ilumination Foundation to work in the civic center area on homeless issues.
Smith credits county officials for being considerate and thorough as they continue to retrofit the space to help homeless.
“We never wrote down we wanted heat, wind blockage, tv, microwaves, full showers, laundry, even women getting their own bathrooms,” Smith said. “We never thought we’d get that.”
The Civic Center, much like the Santa Ana riverbed near the 57 Freeway, became a central gathering point for hundreds of homeless in recent years while county supervisors largely ignored the issue.
Following a strong community outcry last year for a response at the Civic Center, and support for using the bus terminal as a rapid-response center, Supervisor Andrew Do pushed his colleagues on the board to authorize a purchase of the facility for $5 million along with a $1.3 million annual budget.
Do, who took a chance on the project - and ultimately rode publicity for the effort to re-election in November - deserves credit for getting county homeless policy off life-support.
The question in 2017 for all of us is what kind of policy are we moving toward?
So far, the Courtyard has been a clear success.
This past month, when the rains fell on the Civic Center – hundreds had a safe and dry roof to sleep under.
On most nights, nearly 400 people are sleeping at the terminal – four times as many as when it first opened for cold weather last winter, which was run by Mercy House.
Nearly 20 people have already been moved into permanent housing, 18 Courtyard residents have gotten jobs, and more than 100 people are accessing government services at the site each week, according to a civic-center update newsletter sent out by the County of Orange.
The scene at the Courtyard itself is impressive, looking like a community center with numerous tables, a TV viewing center, storage, bike parking, bathrooms, laundry and organized feeding. At the periphery, you can see people getting assistance through government workers and small cubicles for those that are awaiting program placement.
Yet there are real challenges.
As our newsroom has chronicled, there are some activists already raising concerns about how the Courtyard is being managed, with things like the approach toward security triggering questions.
Eve Garrow, a policy analyst with the ACLU that also has worked alongside Smith on civic center homeless issues, sees challenges at the bus terminal and fears county officials are trying to do it on the cheap.
“When I visit the courtyard, I see an extremely disabled population,” Garrow said.
Note that the ACLU currently has a lawsuit pending against the City of Laguna Beach, arguing that the city’s efforts on a shelter are coming up short.
Going cheap can be costly, Garrow warns.
“My litmus test is would you have your grandmother living there?,” Garrow said.
She’s afraid county efforts at the bus terminal could make things worse, especially among those with mental conditions like PTSD, if the site is not properly developed.
“It’s very crowded,” Garrow said of the Courtyard.
I wrote previously that security at the site would be one of the most complex undertakings.
Midnight Mission officials seem to have found a good approach so far, getting more than 400 homeless people to trust enough to use the facility with a low visibility security approach.
It’s important to point out that so far there have been hundreds of people sleeping next to each other at the site for months and there have been no major incidents.
Yet one thing that nonprofits and government agencies don’t handle well is criticism and controversy. It makes them nervous and they tend to dig their heads in, stop returning reporters phone calls.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
This whole process will be delicate. There’s a lot to debate and learn. There will be mistakes, opportunities for course corrections.
Smith puts it in proper perspective.
“Yes, there are 400 people here packed together. Most have mental issues. And yes, there are situations. In a perfect world, they’d (security) catch everything. But the world has never been black and white. It’s always been grey,” Smith said.
The Midnight Mission approach to security has been key to getting buy in, Smith notes.
“By lowering the barriers, letting anybody come in, you changed the whole best practices plan in OC,” Smith said. “That changed it all.”
Smith said the Courtyard has had such great success, there is talk of fast-tracking things at the county’s proposed homeless shelter site on the Anaheim/Orange border, popularly referred to as the Kramer site by officials – for the street where it is located at.
There is reportedly talk of putting into practices the lessons from the Courtyard and housing people right on the warehouse floor.
Yet that potential change is already triggering public questions from local elected officials like Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray, who came forward to raise such questions at a county supervisors’ meeting last month.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who drove the political deals that ushered in the operations plan for the Kramer site, called on county leaders to publicly update where plans are.
Some fear the Kramer site could sit empty because of the deals that made it politically palatable.
“Read the operation plan for Kramer, nobody will use that,” Smith said. “People will not give up their rights. What they don’t want they do is go through bullshit to get off the street.”
These are all important, tough questions, which underscores the fact that this should all be a public process, with periodic public updates. That makes for better policy – even if public meetings go a little longer and are a bit more passionate.