Santa Ana Wants County to Shelter Homeless People on Vacant Irvine Land, Considers Suing

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

People on bikes make their way along the Santa Ana Riverbed bike trail through the well-established homeless encampment on Friday, September 15, 2017.

The Santa Ana City Council is calling on the county to use 100 acres of land it owns in Irvine to help house hundreds of homeless people. 

City council members  said they also are considering a lawsuit against the county – and inviting other cities to join – alleging mismanagement of millions of dollars in federal homelessness money the county gets each year.

“I’m pretty fed up with the county,” said Santa Ana Councilman Vicente Sarmiento at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, where he and the other council members created the city’s first staff position dedicated to coordinating homeless services.

Sarmiento noted county officials have “pushed” a large homeless camp to the city’s side of the county Civic Center by closing off the county side for construction work.

Other council members vented frustration at how county officials – who receive over $20 million in federal dollars each year to address homelessness – have handled the situation.

Councilman Jose Solorio noted the county owns 100 acres of largely vacant land in Irvine, near the Great Park, which he said should be used to shelter more than 500 homeless people.

The city ought to “hold [the county] accountable” for that land, said Solorio, who proposed a 21-point plan to address homelessness. Sarmiento agreed the county’s 100 acres presents a strong opportunity to house homeless people.

The most recent census of homeless people in Santa Ana, conducted in January as part of the countywide point-in-time count, found 1,000 homeless people living in the city. Santa Ana has the largest homeless population of any city in the county, according to the city’s staff.

The county has opened two homeless shelters in the past year – totaling 500 beds – which can shelter less than 20 percent of people living on the streets in Orange County, and now are full. The point-in-time count, which didn’t count every homeless person, found a total of 4,792 people in Orange County experiencing homelessness, including people in shelters and on the streets.

And county supervisors are far behind in implementing their own 10-year plan to end homelessness by September 2020, which calls for creating affordable housing opportunities.

The new shelters quickly filled up, with another 2,400-plus people on the streets countywide, according to the point-in-time count. Among them are more than 400 now living in a large encampment along the Santa Ana River.

Meanwhile, a study earlier this year by UC Irvine found it would save taxpayer dollars overall to provide housing and support services to the entire chronically homeless population in Orange County. That’s largely because of the enormous hospital bills the public currently pays, because homeless people end up in the emergency room much more often when they live on the streets.

The average cost of public services when homeless people are in permanent supportive housing is about 50 percent lower than when they’re on the streets ($51,000 versus $100,000), according to the UCI study. The researchers estimated a savings of about $42 million per year if all of Orange County’s chronically homeless people were in permanent supportive housing.

Santa Ana officials say they have helped more than 160 homeless people in their city find housing since July of last year.

If the county dedicated half of its 100 acres in Irvine to such housing, and found funding for it, the land could house over 1,000 people who currently live on the streets, based on a medium density of 25 housing units per acre.

The county does not need city permits or zoning approval to build on its land, because counties are a higher level of government, according to county officials and Santa Ana’s city attorney.

For years, the county has planned on leasing the land for private apartments, hotels, and retail shopping, which would generate revenue to the county.

In May, Supervisor Shawn Nelson proposed a temporary homeless encampment on the Irvine property and two other county properties.

But the homeless camp idea fell flat after pushback from Irvine officials and a lack of support among supervisors. Any new county actions on homelessness, such as creating housing or shelters, must have support from three of the five county supervisors to be approved.

“The problem really is with…the agency that’s vested with this [responsibility]. And that’s the county,” Sarmiento said.

The tens of millions of dollars in federal and state funding to address homelessness and mental health goes to the county, not cities.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Sarmiento directed City Attorney Sonia Carvalho to explore a potential lawsuit against the county over its management of homelessness funds. He said the city of Los Angeles successfully sued LA County over a similar situation years ago.

That lawsuit led to the city of LA having a direct role in deciding how the federal homelessness dollars are spent. That was achieved in 1993 through the creation a joint city-county agency, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which continues to manage LA’s federal homelessness dollars.

A potential lawsuit by Santa Ana against the county “should be one more of the options that we have, that we need to explore,” Sarmiento said. He asked the city attorney to find out whether other cities, like Anaheim, would join Santa Ana.

None of the other council members opposed Sarmiento’s directive to explore a lawsuit against the county. The city attorney and her staff will research it and bring their findings back to the council for possible action at some point in the future.

Additionally, Solorio’s 21-point plan to address homelessness would make it illegal for hospitals and other cities and to drop homeless people off in Santa Ana, unless there’s a receiving agency in Santa Ana that agrees to it.

Another of Solorio’s proposals would classify the entire Civic Center area as a park, to allow the city to enforce a closing time.

Mayor Miguel Pulido said the mayor of Tustin has mentioned the possibility of using three acres the city has at the former Marine Corps air station there to address homelessness.

Pulido said he’s lived in Santa Ana for a long time, and has “never seen the homeless problem this bad.”

People are sneaking into yards and spending the night there, and then in morning they refuse to leave, he said.

The Anaheim City Council last week declared a state of emergency related to homeless camps along the Santa Ana River, and county supervisors created a new Sheriff’s Department patrol force for the area.

The Santa Ana City Council Tuesday approved creation of a city staff position for coordinating homeless services across city departments, as well as nonprofit groups and other government agencies.

City staff now have to recruit candidates for the position and hire someone, which took the county six months for its homeless services coordinator.

Santa Ana officials declined to give a time estimate for when their position will be filled. 

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