U.S. District Judge David O. Carter expects county officials to follow through on their promise to provide an appropriate place to sleep for the hundreds of homeless people who used to live along the Santa Ana River Trail, according to federal court documents.
“The Court is growing increasingly concerned about whether the County has a sufficient number of beds for the hundreds of individuals exiting from motels over the next week,” Carter wrote in a Thursday night court filing.
His statement came hours after Orange County supervisors proposed eliminating all three proposed sites for new homeless shelters. It was part of a court order that scheduled an April 3 meeting with county officials, lawyers for homeless people, and the mayors and city managers of all 34 cities in Orange County.
“The County had thirty days to create a plan for transitioning those individuals to appropriate placements, and the Court expects the County to live up to its stipulation, and to address this issue before the April 3rd status conference if needed,” Carter wrote.
“In addition, the Court is interested in hearing at the status conference whether and how the County and/or cities decided to resolve the need for a proportional distribution of shelter availability, in order to address homelessness throughout the three different mental health service zones in the County. The Court anticipates, based on the prior representations of the parties, that the County will coordinate with cities in the selection of appropriate sites and ensure that sufficient shelter is available.”
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Carter invited, but did not order, top city officials from across the county to attend the April 3 meeting so they can provide their input. It’s scheduled for 9 a.m. that day, at a location to be determined.
His announcement put pressure on the supervisors to have a plan for the shelter beds ready before the April 3 meeting.
Carter’s statement came as county supervisors face a backlash from local residents over proposals to place homeless shelter beds in Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel. Thousands of phone calls opposing the shelter plans have come in to the supervisors’ offices in recent days.
Much of the backlash stems from the supervisors not explaining any plan to deal with residents’ safety concerns, such as whether they will allow people to walk in or out of the facilities, provide additional police presence, or both.
The supervisors will consider what to do about the shelter plan during their meeting Tuesday, and officials are preparing for hundreds of residents to show up to speak about the issue.
As of Friday morning, the supervisors were expected to vote Tuesday to eliminate all three proposed sites for new shelter beds, and then wait until after the April 3 court meeting to vote to place all 400 beds in Irvine at their April 10 meeting.
WeIrvine, a web-based service for Chinese immigrants in the city, said it plans to charter seven buses to drive residents to the supervisors’ Tuesday meeting to oppose the proposed shelter.
Coupled with another item on Tuesday’s agenda to have the county fight California’s “sanctuary state” law, the supervisors’ meeting is expected to last all day.
The supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, won’t be at Tuesday’s meeting due to travel plans and isn’t expected to participate in the meeting by phone, according to people close to the situation. And Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes Irvine, is expected to leave for part of the meeting to attend an event elsewhere.
Do and his spokeswoman, Yorba Linda City Councilwoman Tara Campbell, didn’t return phone messages asking about Do’s apparent plans to miss Tuesday’s meeting.
Spitzer said he had plans to attend Tuesday’s opening of the county’s first psychiatric beds for children, at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. But given all the major items added to the supervisors’ agenda, Spitzer said he didn’t yet know what he would do and will have to “play it by ear on Tuesday.”
Another site, the 114-acre, state-owned Fairview Development Center in Costa Mesa, was also put forward Friday by Supervisor Shawn Nelson as a potential location to shelter homeless people.
“Nelson is working with [state] Senator John Moorlach to request he ask the State of California to take emergency action to open Fairview Developmental Center as an emergency homeless shelter,” said a news release from Nelson’s office.
“The facility opened in 1959 and was originally designed to serve individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Utilizing infrastructure already in place will help expedite the transition of homeless from area motels to an improved triage center while satisfying the judge’s order to present a swift, realistic plan,” according to the news release.
During a court hearing Thursday, Carter suggested local officials call Gov. Jerry Brown and ask him to declare a state of emergency to cut through red tape and open up state resources.
As a federal judge, Carter can ban cities from enforcing anti-camping and loitering laws until adequate shelter is available for homeless people. That’s because a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as the Jones decision, found it’s unconstitutional to criminalize involuntary acts resulting from homelessness when there’s a shortage of adequate shelter.
Irvine, is one of just one or two cities in Orange County that doesn’t have an anti-camping law. But Carter can seek a federal criminal investigation into the city’s alleged “dumping” of homeless people into other cities, like Santa Ana. And March 17, Carter warned city officials he would seek such a probe, including impaneling a grand jury to consider a criminal indictment, if any cities in Orange County dump homeless people elsewhere again. Carter noted a federal prosecutor was in the audience.
But Carter has emphasized he’d much rather see city and county officials reach into their “goodness” to collaborate and find suitable shelter locations for the hundreds of homeless people who were at the riverbed and 150 to 200 who are currently at the Santa Ana Civic Center.
On Feb. 13, Supervisor Andrew Do committed in open court to seeking the supervisors’ approval to provide motel beds for the homeless population, plus 300 to 400 beds on county-owned properties.
With the supervisors’ approval, the county then agreed to provide 30-day stays at motels for people on the riverbed, followed by “appropriate resources” after that.
But more than 30 days later, when the supervisors authorized exploring the three city sites for potential homeless shelters, they declined to say how they would address the safety concerns of residents.
Instead of starting the process early in the 30-day motel stays, supervisors waited until after the 30 days were ending before they directed county staff to develop an operational plan with such details, which still have not been provided.
Spitzer has alleged the county’s shelter plan would bring sex offenders into Irvine and Laguna Niguel. But county Probation Department officials, who track sex offenders, say there is one sex offender among the 697 homeless people who moved from the riverbed into motels.
Carter said this week he expects officials to also start relocating the homeless people in the Santa Ana Civic Center, after health assessments, into more appropriate shelter over several days, starting April 2.
Among the estimated 150 to 200 homeless people in the Civic Center, probation officials say there are a total of three convicted sex offenders.
Sex offenders would not be moved to the proposed Irvine shelter, but instead would be offered beds in a separate location where they would be monitored, according to a county official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Irvine location is near the Orange County Great Park and is neighbored by an OCTA bus base, the Second Harvest Food Bank, and the 5 and 133 freeways. The Irvine City Council has zoned the land for an emergency homeless shelter, and county officials conducted an environmental impact analysis last year into using the site for a homeless shelter.
The type of zoning, known as SB 2, that Irvine designated for the location “prohibit[s] localities from denying a proposal to build an emergency shelter, transitional housing or supportive housing if it is needed and otherwise consistent with the locality’s zoning and development standards,” according to Irvine’s main city planning document, the general plan.
Also on Tuesday, county officials are expected to challenge Spitzer’s recent claims that county staff hid roughly $185 million in unspent mental health money from county supervisors and hid the fact it could be used for housing.
The amount of the unspent Mental Health Services Act money has been documented for years in county budgets and annual reports approved by the supervisors, and Voice of OC first wrote about it in 2015.
Additionally, the annual plans approved by supervisors each year specifically say the mental money can be used for housing. And county mental health director Mary Hale publicly told supervisors in August 2015 the money could be used for housing.
Out of the roughly 610 homeless people who remained in motels when their stays started ending March 16, about 550 had been assessed by county health workers for the most appropriate placement, such as an emergency shelter, mental health facilities, and drug treatment centers.
Carter has said it’s up to county officials to work with cities to decide where the shelter beds will go, deferring to their expertise. But he’s made clear he expects the county to follow through on its commitment to provide the beds for the people who were in motels, as well as the Civic Center homeless population.
Meanwhile, the county’s expanded shelter capacity for women had already filled up Thursday night, according to county officials and the lead attorney for homeless people in the federal lawsuits.
“The women’s shelter was already full by last night. Less than a week open,” said Brooke Weitzman, the attorney for homeless people, via text message Friday.
The county’s top attorney, Leon Page, confirmed the 40-person capacity was reached at the shelter, WISEPlace in Santa Ana. The shelter needed more staff to expand further to 60 beds, and county officials are working to make that happen by adding social services staff, Page said. He said he believed the capacity had been expanded to 60 women as of Friday night.
“I believe people were turned away due to capacity” before, Weitzman said, “so I’m confident it will fill again when they add the beds.”
Meanwhile, the man who led Utah’s successful efforts to reduce homelessness said Orange County officials can be successful with creating shelter beds if they realistically address the concerns.
“You honestly and forthrightly address the issues that your citizens are raising,” including the sex offender concerns, said Lloyd Pendleton, who oversaw Utah’s dramatic reduction in chronic homelessness.
It’s also important, he said, for officials to explain who the proposed shelter beds would serve, such as single men, single women, or families.
As for how to address the safety concerns, Pendleton said when one city steps up to host a homeless shelter in Utah, the other cities in the county chip in financially to help pay for the shelter and to have police and paramedics on site. Something like that could be done in Orange County, he said.
The idea is, “it’s a little bit unfair for Irvine” to host the shelter, so other cities can put money in so they’re “part of the solution,” said Pendleton, who is scheduled to speak at a Chapman University conference on housing and homelessness on April 5.
“Additional police officers and EMT are going to be needed,” as well as case managers who “can begin to link” homeless people to services and housing.
For housing, he said people can ask churches and other faith groups if there are parishioners who are willing to commit 5, 10, or 15 rental units at a reduced rate.
You can “go to your churches and say…these are God’s children” and they’ve had a hard life, Pendleton said. “Muslims, Jewish, Christian – all in their theology is caring for the poor and needy.”
As for the shelter issue, he said, “It’s a tough discussion…But address the issues realistically,” and “make it happen.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].