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Orange County supervisors are considering making a county-owned property in Irvine the only site for new homeless shelter beds, amid public backlash over plans to place shelters in Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach.
The change of plans would include eliminating the Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach locations approved by supervisors this week. It will be discussed by supervisors Tuesday in closed and open session at their public meeting, according to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.
All three of the proposed shelter sites could be eliminated Tuesday, but another vote on selecting the location for the beds is expected at a later date, after county and city officials gather on April 3 for a court-organized meeting.
The 100-acre county-owned Irvine land, at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, is zoned by the city for a homeless shelter, and the county last year analyzed environmental impacts to the surrounding area if a shelter was built.
“It’s the property that makes the most sense,” Bartlett told reporters after a federal court hearing Thursday about the relocation of 600-plus homeless people from temporary stays in motels. She said the Irvine land doesn’t have the proximity-to-a-school problem of the Laguna Niguel site, nor the methane gas problem of the Huntington Beach site.
“The fact is, there’s one place to put this. And that’s it,” Nelson said of the Irvine site during the court hearing, adding it’s the only large piece of county land zoned for a shelter.
The shift appears to have the support it needs to pass, with three supervisors – Bartlett, Nelson, and Michelle Steel – indicating their preference for the Irvine site.
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On Tuesday, the supervisors are expected to remove all three proposed shelter sites, with a decision to come at a future meeting on adding the beds to Irvine. The supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, is not expected to be present at Tuesday’s meeting because he plans to be traveling, according to two people close to the situation.
The proposed shelter is part of an ongoing federal lawsuit filed against the county in late January by attorney Brooke Weitzman on behalf of homeless people, after the county set a Jan. 22 deadline to start evicting people encamped at the Santa Ana riverbed. The county agreed to move at least 400 people from the riverbed into motels for a month and then provide them “appropriate resources” after that.
The number of people actually relocated to motels grew to 697, plus dozens more into other types of facilities, according to county officials. Now the county is scrambling to relocate people leaving the motels, plus more homeless people living at the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Nelson said a critical missing component in the county is “low-threshold” shelter beds for homeless people, and that officials will face public outcry no matter where these beds are proposed.
“Any community that is asked to touch that [third] rail is going to immediately erupt,” Nelson told U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing the relocation effort.
In a 2003 agreement regarding bringing the 100-acre property into city boundaries, Irvine officials agreed that the county would be allowed to use the land for any purpose, including emergency shelter. And the city has zoned the land for a homeless shelter under California’s Senate Bill 2 (SB 2).
Irvine residents who spoke at the emergency City Council meeting Tuesday said they fear for their family’s safety and a drop in property values.
Bartlett said she and the rest of the supervisors need to communicate better with local officials and residents. “It’s absolutely important to educate the cities and council members,” she said. More than a month after supervisors started preparing to add shelter beds to county land, they have not disclosed a plan for how the shelters would operate, such as how homeless people will enter and leave the facilities.
“Are they walking in and out? And where are they walking to?” asked Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, speaking with reporters Tuesday night. Irvine and the other two cities are pursuing lawsuits against the county to block the shelter plans.
Carter said he would leave it up to supervisors to decide where to put the shelter beds, and would follow up with them after their Tuesday meeting.
“It’s not my position to impose any location,” Carter said. “You’ve gotta have something as a backup. That’s not an order, just a warm suggestion.”
Carter, a Vietnam War veteran, later added: “I’m not championing El Toro, but I’m a former Marine and I love that base.”
It’s unclear when the county will open up new beds, which officials said would only be set up as-needed once existing beds are filled up.
It will take two to three weeks to set up the tents.
And county officials keep increasing the stated capacity of their main shelter, the Courtyard, near the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Earlier this month, the county’s stated capacity for the Courtyard was 425 beds. It was raised to 450 last week, and then to 500 people as of Thursday.
County Counsel Leon Page said 372 people were staying at the Courtyard Thursday, with beds available for 78 more.
Carter, however, has said the capacity is “supposed to be 380” people, and that attempts to boost the capacity are “nonsense.” The judge has visited the shelter numerous times, including early Thursday morning.
Carter also scheduled a large-scale meeting for April 3 at 9 a.m. to discuss the homeless shelter options. In addition to county officials and attorneys for homeless people, he said he will invite the mayors and city managers of all 34 cities in Orange County.
He held a similar meeting March 17, before the county announced its plans and sparked the backlash. Carter encouraged local officials to form a bipartisan group to invite Gov. Jerry Brown and state Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) to send representatives to the meeting.
“You’re so close to creating such goodness,” Carter told officials Thursday, noting their collaborative efforts to relocate people from the riverbed. “We’ve got to have some emergency shelters, hopefully in the different zones in the county.”
Over the past month, officials, attorneys, and volunteers got 750 people off the riverbed who would otherwise be in backyards and streets, Carter said, adding that people are “turning their lives around.”
“The real story is, a lot of these folks have gotten jobs,” and are applying for jobs as dishwashers, canvassers, baristas, and maids.
Some have gotten housing and family members have been reunited with loved ones. “Those are stories that just have to touch you,” Carter said.
“You achieved almost the impossible,” Carter told those gathered at the court hearing Thursday.
Noting the pending legal action by cities, Carter said if county and city officials don’t come together, the situation will revert to traditional adversarial litigation and finger-pointing, “and very little getting accomplished, quite frankly.”
Carter told local officials he wanted to “act as an umbrella again” for the “goodness” within them.
The judge also told city officials he still expects them to start relocating the estimated 150-plus people from the Santa Ana Civic Center, starting April 2.
But he emphasized officials will have time to conduct the relocations, which will “expand” beyond just the Civic Center and into retail areas. Notices were visible Thursday afternoon notifying homeless people in the Civic Center no camping will be allowed starting April 2.
While county and city officials are best positioned to choose where to put shelters, Carter said, he still wants to see them spread out across the county. He said it’s “unfair” that Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Fullerton currently “shoulder the burden” of hosting the county’s emergency shelter beds.
During the Tuesday night emergency council meetings, Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a candidate for District Attorney, emphasized a criminal element among the homeless population.
“These in my opinion are the population that is the worst of the worst and they do include sex offenders,” Spitzer said Tuesday night.
His comments upset some fellow supervisors, who viewed it as fueling public fears and harming the county’s effort to expand shelter capacity.
“I thought his actions were…over the top and outrageous,” Bartlett told reporters. “It made matters worse.”
County probation officials say there was only one convicted sex offender among the 697 homeless people who moved into motels.
Asked about this Thursday by Voice of OC, Spitzer noted that homeless people at the Civic Center could also move into the proposed shelter beds.
Of the 150 to 200 people estimated at the Civic Center, there are three convicted sex offenders, aside from people already sheltered at the Courtyard, according to Probation Department spokeswoman Jennifer Palmquist.
Sex offenders’ locations are known because they wear GPS monitors, Palmquist said.
The judge asked that people not overstate what he’s doing.
“Please don’t cast the court [as] making some broad order,” Carter said. “It’s scaring the public. And it may be scaring the public absolutely [needlessly].”
As of last week, just before motel stays started ending, 610 people remained in motels, according to the county. As their stays expire, they have been required to leave the motels and go to shelters or medical facilities, based on assessments by county health workers.
County officials refused to say Thursday how many homeless people remain in motels, or have moved elsewhere. They also refused to say how many people have moved to the streets, shelters, housing, mental health beds, or family reunification.
Meanwhile, residents are planning a protest against the Irvine shelter for 11 a.m. Sunday at the Great Park, while shelter supporters are planning a counter-protest.
A meeting to plan the anti-shelter protest was scheduled for Thursday night, with Wagner expected to attend, according to an online post by organizers.
Spitzer told the Thursday night Irvine meeting “You have the best schools in the nation. You have the safest city in the country. And now, four members of the Board of Supervisors want to put that all in jeopardy.
“What you need to do – through social media, through your relationships, through mobilization – you’ve got to connect the dots to make sure that other elected officials understand the pain of making a decision that will forever ruin the quality of life” in Irvine.
Carter said in court Thursday he believes people have it within them to collaborate and find a solution.
“Americans will usually step up to that challenge,” he said, if they “understand it’s fair.”
The judge told county officials they have a big task ahead of them, and that’s “making this county shine…and I think it’s possible.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.