Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson said Tuesday the homeless situation should be treated as an emergency and issued a call to action to find sites to house all of the county’s thousands of homeless people.
At the end of a Board of Supervisors meeting in which activists again criticized supervisors, Nelson directed county staff to research how to quickly provide a bed for all of the homeless in Orange County, including potentially creating campgrounds on county-owned properties.
And he said he wanted to know what could be done within a month.
“We’re never gonna make progress until we can at least figure out how to answer the question [of how] we have a bed for everyone that wants it,” he said.
“We have to at least be there for them, and then we’ll start working backwards with why people don’t want the services, if they don’t.”
To that end, Nelson directed county CEO Frank Kim to put together a list of “every parcel that the county owns that is feasible to put an emergency, temporary shelter” within a month.
One option he gave was empty lots where the county could set up portable restrooms, showers, and tents.
“The Marines do all kinds of things out of tents for long periods of time,” Nelson noted in his remarks.
“This is emergency stuff,” Nelson said. “It’s not the answer. It’s just a step.”
Nelson’s directive was met with no opposition from the rest of the Board of Supervisors.
The only other supervisor to comment on his remarks was Lisa Bartlett, who said she agreed with Nelson and believed the county should also work toward a statewide and national conversation about homelessness.
“Every county needs to try to do its part,” so Orange County isn’t taking the overwhelming burden on this, Bartlett said.
Nelson’s remarks were greeted with mixed reaction from activists, who appreciated the effort but still want a commitment from the county to fund permanent housing.
“That is welcomed and unprecedented in this county,” said one of the leading advocates, Mohammed Aly, in a text message to a Voice of OC reporter.
“Authorized campgrounds are insufficient, and do not supplant permanent housing, but they provide homeless individuals with a reprieve from laws that criminalize their existence.”
Aly and other activists said they stand ready to work with the supervisors on solutions.
Nelson’s call-to-action came after months of public comments, including Tuesday, from advocates urging the county to create safe and sanitary places for homeless people to stay.
Until recently, their effort seemed to be going nowhere. But they kept pursuing the issue, speaking during public comments, pursuing federal lawsuits, and talking with Nelson and county homelessness czar Susan Price.
During the public comment period earlier in the meeting, activists again called attention to a shortage of shelter and restrooms for the homeless.
Several speakers thanked supervisors for sending workers to fix a broken water fountain near the Santa Ana riverbed, where hundreds of homeless people live. But they said homeless people still lack access to restrooms, which they said has drawn complaints both from homeless people and the residents of nearby apartments.
Activists suggested the county provide portable restrooms, open existing restrooms at a park along the river 24 hours a day, or both.
Until that happens, people are put in position of having to use buckets as toilets, said Brooke Weitzman, an activist and attorney. She recently obtained a court order against the county regarding the seizure of homeless people’s property near the Santa Ana River.
One of the biggest homeless camps is in the county Civic Center, right outside the supervisors’ office windows in Santa Ana.
Another is along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium.
In February, the county removed the homeless camps along the eastern riverbank.
But in response to Weitzman’s lawsuit, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter last month ordered the county to give a physical notice 24 hours before seizing property and mandated that “essential items” like tents, sleeping bags, and medical papers be stored within one mile of where they were taken.
Last week Voice of OC reported Nelson had a homeless camp replaced with rocks near the Santa Ana River last summer.
Before Nelson’s comments Tuesday, Anaheim resident Jeanine Robbins told supervisors the county’s new Kraemer shelter, which is slated to open with an initial 100 beds next month in Anaheim, is a good attempt but will house less than 4 percent of the county’s homeless population at a time.
“It is time for the actions of this Board of Supervisors to garner a headline – a positive headline – that shows that we are a county willing and able to help the less fortunate,” Robbins said.
“Please, you guys, do something positive about this problem.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.