U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is warning of an impending emergency as homeless people whose motels stays are ending are asked to move to new beds county officials been “cramming” into already-full homeless shelters.

“The Court is gravely concerned that these shelter spaces are being created by cramming an unreasonable number of persons into the three existing facilities,” Carter wrote in a court filing Sunday.

Among the problems he cited: Women’s beds put in men’s sleeping areas due to a lack of space, people with serious mental illnesses being triggered by extremely crowded conditions at the Courtyard shelter, and women being told by county officials their option was to stay at an already-over-capacity shelter with men who they say sexually assaulted them.

“Tragically, 37.5 [percent] of the homeless surveyed at the Riverbed are victims of domestic violence, and many women report having been subject to sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape on the streets since becoming homeless,” Carter wrote.

“These women simply seek a safe place to shelter, as is evidenced by the fact that WISEPlace, which is a women-only shelter, filled to capacity within a week of opening emergency shelter beds, including with women who voluntarily left the Civic Center Plaza encampment to come to WISEPlace, and thereafter had to turn away women seeking services and shelter.

“For the foregoing reasons, the Courtyard [shelter], with its already crowded conditions, may not be an appropriate placement for many women and persons exiting motels who, as a result of previous trauma and/or mental disabilities, are unable to cope with being in a room with over 400 other men and women.”

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Carter said more than a week ago that the county’s attempts to add more than 380 beds at the Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana was “nonsense.” And the county has now run out of available sober living beds, he wrote in his Sunday filing.

“In sum, although the parties are working hard and doing their best to appropriately place everyone exiting from motels, this County remains desperately in need of additional emergency shelter resources, and the Court remains concerned about the County’s ability to meet its promise to provide ‘appropriate resources’ to individuals at the end of their 30-day motel stays.

“The Court is interested in discussing with the County the seeming lack of appropriate resources and hearing if there are further actions the County envisions taking to avert an emergency situation.”

(Click here to read Carter’s warning.)

Carter’s statement came two days before county supervisors plan to undo their vote last week to pursue homeless shelters at three sites. The judge has left it up to county and city officials to figure out where to put additional shelter beds, but has made clear he expects them to provide adequate shelter for the hundreds of homeless people who were relocated in February from the Santa Ana riverbed to motels.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to creating that new shelter has been pushback from cities, particularly Irvine, who say the supervisors did not explain their plans or try to collaborate with the cities about putting shelters there.

On Monday, Irvine officials filed a lawsuit against the county seeking to block the use of county-owned property at the former El Toro military base for a homeless shelter.

In response to Carter’s warning, a county supervisor said she hoped on Tuesday to “reset” the frayed relationship between county and city officials and collaborate to find an appropriate place for new shelter beds and develop a well-thought-out plan.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said in a Monday night phone interview she was “still wanting a plan from the county” for proposed shelter beds.

“Hopefully tomorrow we can kind of set the reset button with everyone – in particular, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Niguel – and then start to work collaboratively and cooperatively with all of our partner cities [and] come up with a plan, short term and long term” for homeless shelter and housing.

Bartlett said she’s been trying to collaborate with Irvine, and that it’s going well, saying she had a “really good conversation with the mayor on Sunday,” and that it seemed like he wants to work with county.

“I was really quite pleased with the conversation and the possibilities of what we can do collaborating in the future.”

There was no immediate comment from the other county officials regarding Carter’s warning.

Heading into Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, concerns have been growing among county officials that little will be accomplished if the various sides don’t start working together.

Carter’s warning Sunday came amid an increasingly toxic relationship between county supervisors and city officials – particularly in Irvine – and among the supervisors themselves.

The judge was concerned last week that if cities, like Irvine, end up suing the county, it will set back the good will and collaboration that had been built up between county and city officials around solutions.

Hours after Carter expressed that concern on Thursday, Supervisor Todd Spitzer encouraged a packed Irvine City Council chambers to sue the county, warning that the shelter would bring sex offenders to Irvine and put children at risk.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, meanwhile, said Sunday night said no sex offenders would be put in the Irvine shelter. He was the first county official known to have gone on the record to say so.

County officials have not yet come out with a plan for what the shelters would look like and how the main safety concerns from community members would be addressed.

But Nelson has given the most information to date, and on Monday he told Voice of OC the county’s proposed shelter would look look like a 324-person homeless shelter in San Diego run by the Alpha Project, known as the “Bridge Shelter,” as seen in the following photos:

About 324 people live at the Alpha Project’s “Bridge Shelter” homeless shelter in downtown San Diego. Credit: SUSAN MURPHY, KPBS
The outside of the homeless tent shelter in downtown San Diego Credit: MATT HOFFMAN, KPBS

Tuesday’s supervisors meeting is expected to be one of the most widely-attended in recent years. Hundreds of people have signed up to take buses to attend, according to organizers who oppose the proposed Irvine shelter.

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

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