Federal Judge Expands OC Homeless Housing to Include Longtime Santa Ana Civic Center Camp

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Homeless people congregate in the Plaza of the Flags at the Santa Ana Civic Center on March 17, 2018. About 150 people lived in tents and make shift structures at the Plaza.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter expanded the scope of his inquiry into homelessness at the Santa Ana riverbed Saturday pushing city and county officials during a day-long federal court hearing to also agree to relocate the roughly 150 homeless people living in the Santa Ana Civic Center.

County Board of Supervisor Chairman Andrew Do, before a crowd of activists, homeless people, county officials and city managers from across the county, struck a decidedly different tone than he has in the past.

“We don’t have a defense. I’m going to be the first to own up that we have failed,” Do said at the start of the hearing, to loud applause. “To lead requires we are proactive and not reactive, and we have failed.”

Carter held the hearing at Santa Ana City Hall, where just outside, hundreds of homeless people have camped for more than a decade, although numbers have dwindled after the recent opening of an emergency shelter nearby. The Civic Center is part of Do’s supervisorial district.

Carter has taken an unusually active role in pushing collaboration and negotiations between government officials and attorneys for the homeless. The hearing was called Saturday to resolve complaints, part of a federal lawsuit against the county, that former riverbed homeless people being moved from motel rooms have not been given adequate services and housing options by the county.

Attorneys for homeless people cited examples of people with serious medical problems and disabilities who cannot sleep in a shelter, or who rely on a spouse or partner as a caretaker. The medical and detox beds offered by the county often do not allow people to be housed with their partners.

For example, Shane Allen, a man who is confined to a wheelchair after a stroke who also suffers from stage 4 cancer, has a weakened immune system and cannot live in a shelter, said attorney Brooke Weitzman. As Allen also depends on his wife as a caretaker, sending them to different shelters would be an unnecessary emotional burden, Weitzman said.

Allen waited to testify at the hearing through the late afternoon, when he was taken to a hospital by paramedics for heart issues.

After several hours of negotiation, attorneys for homeless clients and for the county came to an informal agreement.

Over the next week, the county will continue to relocate nearly 600 former riverbed homeless, most now in motel rooms, as their 30-day maximum stays began to expire March 16.

People who can prove the need for privacy and individualized housing may be, pending approval by the county, allowed to stay in motel rooms for additional time.

“This is not a blanket extension of all motel vouchers,” said Do, who called the extension of motel stays a “big concession.” “If we feel there are cases that warrant closer examination…we are willing to extend the motel vouchers for those individuals, on a case-by-case basis.”

No more than 100 people will be moved out of motels each day, so the attorneys for the homeless – Weitzman and Carol Sobel — won’t be overwhelmed as they monitor the process.

Carter has also required the county to turn over information to Weitzman and Sobel about each person relocated from the riverbed and where they will be placed after their motel stay. The attorneys, with permission from each individual, will have access to clinical evaluations conducted by the county.

People will be given 48-hours notice before they are relocated.

“We will see how this works,” said Sobel. “Frankly, I think they’re going to run out [of shelter space].”

Do said the county has identified $70 million in funding from the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) that will be made available to address homelessness, although he declined to give further details about that funding when asked by a reporter.

A recent audit report released Feb. 27 by the State Auditor’s office found local health agencies statewide have “amassed hundreds of millions in unspent MHSA funds.” Orange County is among those with unspent mental health money.

More details about that funding will be announced at a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors at 9 a.m.  Monday, where supervisors will discuss additional services and housing options for homeless people.

Although Saturday’s hearing was called to address the future of former riverbed homeless people, Carter expanded it to include the Santa Ana Civic Center, where at least 150 people still sleep each night. He pointed to a murder that occurred last week and a woman who was raped the night before.

“I haven’t told you until today that I am adamant of getting rid of this degradation in the Civic Center. I’m going to put more stress on the system, and if you’re not going to do it, I’m going to write an opinion,” Carter said Saturday morning. “Got it? It’s not ramping down, it’s ramping up.”

Carter announced Saturday night the city of Santa Ana and the county agreed to begin a “dignified and humane movement of people” from the Civic Center area. The Santa Ana Police will work with county social workers to clear the area with a similar strategy used at the riverbed.

Beginning Sunday, women living at the Civic Center will be offered immediate shelter at WISEPlace, a women’s shelter with a contract with the county.

County CEO Frank Kim said the county and city have not worked out details of when and how they will begin to move people out of the Civic Center.

Carter was largely complimentary of county officials, praising Do and county Supervisor Todd Spitzer for their leadership. He also thanked the Sheriff’s Department, Health Care Agency workers and Weitzman and Sobel for facilitating a peaceful clear-out of the riverbed encampment.

The county began clearing a massive homeless encampment from the Santa Ana Riverbed on Feb. 20. By the following week, officials said all people on the riverbed had been moved to motels and other shelters, and closed the riverbed to the public on Feb. 26. No one was arrested for refusing to leave the area.

On Saturday, Carter called on cities to step up and contribute to solutions.

“Each of your cities doesn’t want this problem to land in your city,” Carter told the audience, which included city managers and representatives from the most of the county’s 34 cities. “Maybe our constituency would understand that if…it’s one way to solve it is if everybody steps up.”

State Sen. John Moorlach, (R-Costa Mesa) who is sponsoring a bill in the state legislature to determine the use of the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, also was invited to the hearing by Carter.

Homeless advocates are eyeing the large property as a potential site for permanent supportive housing for the homeless or a mental health facility. The 114-acre developmental center, owned by the state, is slated to close in 2021.

Moorlach also has worked with state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) to support legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July 2016, that creates $2 billion in bond proceeds to fund housing for the homeless. The bonds would be repaid with funding from the Mental Health Services Act, although use of the money is still pending court approval. 

De Leon also spoke by phone with Carter Saturday morning before the hearing, the judge said. Moorlach, in a phone call with a reporter Saturday night, said he is working with De Leon to find other funding sources to address homelessness.

Meanwhile, Carter rebuked cities that have moved homeless people out of their cities and into other cities, especially those “dumping” them off at the Civic Center.

“If hypothetically there is dumping, moving of human beings from one city or another, you’ve created a problem, not only in terms of loading up the riverbed, but you’ve created a problem for cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana,” Carter said.

He said if anyone wants to claim dumping isn’t happening, they would be called on to prove it under oath.

“Be very careful what your accusation is, in terms of not taking some of these folks back into your communities that are pristine and virtuous,” Carter said, pointing to a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s office who he had invited to the meeting. “But if anyone wants to play the [body camera] tapes, I’m asking for a Justice Department investigation.”

Carter paused, and the room was silent for a moment.

“That silence means we’ve forgiven and forgotten and it never happens again,” said the judge.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org and Spencer Custodio at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.