Judge to Keep Up Pressure on OC Leaders After “Decades of Neglect” of Homeless

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The Plaza of Flags homeless camp in the Santa Ana Civic Center, which is scheduled to be cleared out starting April 2. Photo taken March 30, 2018.

U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter said Friday that after “decades of neglect” by Orange County leadership on homelessness, he will continue to keep the pressure on county and city officials to find solutions.

“I was literally begged by one of your supervisors to take a breath and slow down,” Carter said, apparently referring to a conversation with Supervisor Todd Spitzer. “No. Absolutely not.”

The brief court conference came after a tumultuous week where county supervisors bowed to public pressure and reversed a vote to place three emergency shelters for homeless people in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.

It also comes as the city of Santa Ana and county health workers prepare to clear 206 homeless people from the Santa Ana Civic Center beginning Monday at 8:30 a.m.

“This county has been in a crisis situation from the time the court got this case. This county’s structure has been deplete, and I think only recently has there been a concerted and good faith effort to catch up with decades of neglect,” Carter said.

“The difficult decision for me was how much longer to be tolerant,” Carter said. “I’m hoping all of us can run faster to catch up.”

Carter has called on city officials and mayors from all 34 cities to attend a court hearing Tuesday, where he expects them to find locations where emergency shelters can be set up.

“We’ve taken the liberty of having name tags made so we can see who has enough concern or interest in their community (to attend),” Carter said.

At a brief Santa Ana City Council meeting Friday morning, the council directed its staff to research a potential lawsuit against the county to recover the city’s costs of addressing homelessness, due to the county’s inaction on the issue.

The potential lawsuit will be voted on at a meeting Tuesday evening.

Mayor Miguel Pulido said at the Friday council meeting, and later told the judge, that the council also is considering “suing all the cities in the county in order to bring them into the court with Judge Carter” on an existing lawsuit brought by Orange County Catholic Worker against the county and three cities. But the council took no action on that Friday.

Carter said Pulido didn’t need to pursue legal action against the cities since he invited the mayors and city managers to Tuesday’s court hearing.

“I’m going to be really anxious to hear from the mayors and the city managers and their willingness to step up,” Carter said.

Attorneys filed a lawsuit in late January on behalf of Orange County Catholic Worker and seven homeless clients living at the Santa Ana riverbed, alleging the county violated their civil rights by pushing people out of the camp without offering adequate services and housing.

A separate case also was filed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County alleging disabled homeless people have not been properly accommodated.

Over the past month and a half, the county has moved nearly 700 people from the Santa Ana riverbed to motels and other shelters. In the last two weeks, most of the people from motels have been moved to shelters, medical and mental health facilities, although CEO Frank Kim acknowledged at a Costa Mesa City Council meeting Wednesday the county has struggled to find appropriate placements for everyone.

As the county manages shelter placements for the displaced riverbed population, they also will begin moving people out of the Santa Ana Civic Center, where a longstanding homeless encampment has proliferated between courthouses and a complex of government buildings.

The city of Santa Ana has “undertaken an incredible burden, unfairly,” Carter said.

The county will take an approach similar to the riverbed, with health workers taking the lead and conducting assessments of each individual before Santa Ana police are allowed to intervene.

Santa Ana police Commander Ken Gominsky told Carter police and health care workers expect to conduct assessments of up to 45 people a day. Gominsky said clearing out the whole area could take up to a week.

“We also understand this is one of the most difficult populations they (healthcare workers) have had to assess,” Gominsky said.

Carter said he won’t set a firm deadline for the Civic Center to be cleared, noting that he originally wanted the riverbed to be cleared in a day. “The court was absolutely wrong,” Carter said.

The clear-out will affect homeless people staying not only in the Plaza of the Flags, a public courtyard near the Superior Court building, but in a broader area bordered by Civic Center Drive and Fourth Street/Santa Ana Boulevard, and between Flower and Sycamore streets.

Carter warned the county while their efforts began with homeless people on the riverbed, they should not take the needs of the riverbed population and “[put] them ahead of” other homeless people countywide.

“Here’s what won’t happen: You will not take the riverbed population, use up resources in Santa Ana … and tell me you don’t have resources,” Carter said.

Two National Guard cold weather armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton also are closing on April 15, raising additional questions about where those people will be housed. County counsel Leon Page said the county is exploring options to keep those facilities open. Each armory holds up to 200 beds.

The judge told Gominsky that people who break the law should not be tolerated.

“For those people who have needles, [drug] paraphernalia, put them in jail,” Carter said.

County supervisors have faced ongoing questions about why they have $186 million of unspent dollars in Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) funds, separate from reserves.

Spitzer and Supervisor Andrew Do have blamed staff, with Do publicly blaming the director of behavioral health, although not by name, for either misleading him or failing to inform him about the use of the MHSA money.

Health Care Agency spokeswoman Jessica Good confirmed Friday afternoon that behavioral health Director Mary Hale has retired, with Friday being her last day.

The scale of the unspent mental health money, and its potential use for housing people with serious mental illness, has been known for years in annual reports and budgets approved by supervisors.

Carter was stern and short-tempered at Friday’s court conference, which was more formal than past proceedings in this case.

At one point he scolded County Counsel Leon Page for whispering to another attorney while he was talking, and told another man to sit down.

But he also made a point to praise county officials for being responsive to problems as they arise, citing an instance where Kim and Do responded to a phone call “within minutes” to address a lack of cots at a women’s shelter.

“I think this court has been extraordinarily tolerant,” Carter said. “But you’re not resting. I’m not either.”

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