Orange County supervisors on Tuesday canceled the development of three new homeless shelters, acting in response to intense backlash over their lack of outreach and failure to address the safety concerns of city officials and residents.

Facing hundreds of upset residents on all sides of the issue, with an estimated 2,000 more demonstrating outside the meeting, the supervisors promised to collaborate with cities and residents on any future locations and an operational plan to address safety concerns.

“I want to express my deepest apologies to the cities of Laguna Niguel, Irvine, and Huntington Beach. The cities do want to be informed” and to have “local control” to protect their residents’ safety, said Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.

“We’re going to work together collaboratively, and we’re gonna get through this. There’s been a lack of clear information, and it’s caused unnecessary panic.”

“I’m sorry too. We’re all sorry,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer told the crowd of city officials, residents, and activists who filled the meeting room. “We can do better. We know we can do better…The nation is watching us.”

The supervisors’ sudden vote March 19 to explore putting homeless shelters in the three cities sparked enormous pushback from residents and city officials. The supervisors did not reach out in advance to the cities about their plans or explain how they’d keep the surrounding areas safe, according to city officials.

It took nearly a week after their vote for supervisors to start answering questions about how safety concerns would be addressed.

With the backlash intensifying, the supervisors scheduled a vote for Tuesday to repeal their decision and did it on a 4-0 vote, with Chairman Andrew Do absent.

Going forward, cities across the county now will be asked where a shelter can be placed. The issue is scheduled for discussion at an April 3 court meeting with U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who has invited all 34 mayors and 34 city managers in Orange County to attend.

Santa Ana police estimated 2,000 people gathered outside the county Hall of Administration Tuesday to protest, the vast majority Irvine residents who chanted, “No tent city! No tent city!” as they carried signs declaring, “Protect our children!” “No drugs near our school,” and “Solutions Not Tents.”

Residents chanted “Keep children safe” while protesting the proposal to build homeless shelter tents in Irvine. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Another 300-plus people packed the supervisors’ meeting room and overflow areas inside the building. Overall, it was the largest crowd at a supervisors’ meeting in years.

“Eleventh-hour action with zero input, or consideration of homeless [people] and residents alike, was shocking” and possibly in violation of state transparency laws, said William Guo, a resident who was one of more than 70 people who spoke at the supervisors’ meeting.

“You put our children’s…safety in great danger,” added Irvine resident Lynn Liu.

Many of the Irvine residents who opposed the shelter location called on the supervisors to find homes and support services for homeless people.

“In my experience, homeless people are not any different from us,” added Virginia Liu.

Homeless people “are the most important people here. They don’t need fencing. They don’t need a tent city. They need a solution,” said Irvine resident Alex Yu.

Homeless advocates said they agreed with a lot of what the Irvine residents wanted.

“We actually have a lot in common,” said homeless advocate R. Joshua Collins.

Carter, the judge who’s presiding over two federal lawsuits about homeless people in Orange County, is warning of an impending emergency due to a shortage of shelter beds, including for seriously mentally ill people and homeless women who say they’ve been been sexually assaulted by men in the main Courtyard shelter and are seeking a safe place to sleep.

“Tragically, 37.5 [percent] of the homeless surveyed at the [Santa Ana] 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 in a court filing Sunday responding to a request for a restraining order blocking enforcement of anti-camping and loitering laws.

“This County remains desperately in need of additional emergency shelter resources,” Carter wrote, adding he wanted to know if the county planned to take steps “to avert an emergency situation.”

City and county officials pledged Tuesday to collaborate on finding shelter space, and said they’re looking forward to Carter’s April 3 meeting. Lawyers for homeless people also will attend.

“The county and the cities have a really unique opportunity to move things forward on April the 3rd, so I look forward to the discussions on that date,” Bartlett said.

Some form of new shelter in Irvine appeared to still be on the table if city officials are included in the planning process.

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner said he will attend the April 3 meeting, and that he’s directed city staff to “come up with some alternate locations.”

“Irvine has pledged to be part of the solution,” Wagner said.

Irvine’s main planning document, the general plan, says, “Irvine’s share of the regional unsheltered homeless population is estimated to be 2,280 individuals.”

The county’s proposed Irvine location is on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, just south of Marine Way and between the 133 toll road, the 5 freeway, the Second Harvest Food Bank, and soccer fields at the Orange County Great Park.

The Irvine City Council zoned the 100-acre property for a homeless shelter, under a state law known as SB 2. City officials, however, say it’s a bad location because it’s now near youth athletic fields and a school, and that toxic contamination remains from the days it was a military base.

Additionally, the supervisors are looking into placing a homeless shelter at a mostly-empty state mental health facility, the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, which has hundreds of vacant residential units originally meant for people with serious mental illnesses. At its peak in the 1960s, it was home to about 2,700 people, but is now down to about 130 people.

The 114-acre Fairview property has numerous residence halls sitting unused, as well as a flat area where large tents could be set up. Officials believe using Fairview in this way would require an emergency declaration from Gov. Jerry Brown or, possibly, the approval of Nancy Bargmann, who runs the state agency that operates the facility.

A theme among many of the officials and residents who spoke Tuesday was that the people of Santa Ana, Fullerton, and Anaheim have already done their fair share to host homeless shelters, and that it was time for other cities to also step up.

“In Santa Ana, we have taken the brunt,” said Valerie Amezcua, a Santa Ana Unified School District board member who has been a county probation officer for decades.

“We have discussions at board meetings all the time about how our kids can’t use the libraries. And how our kids go to school in the morning, and somebody’s sleeping in front of our schools,” she added. “All children matter. Not just children in certain cities.”

Nelson echoed those sentiments.

“Everyone wants to ‘help.’ But what needs help more than anything, is we need emergency shelter beds. And some communities in our county have been shouldering that burden for decades – Santa Ana, Fullerton had the only emergency shelters,” Nelson said.

“We don’t need every community to have an emergency shelter. But when we all go talk to the judge, one of the challenges we’re gonna have is who’s willing to step up. And we’ll see. I hope he has more offers than we need. That would be great,” Nelson added. The county’s efforts so far at finding shelter locations have “not been that successful,” he added.

On Tuesday, supervisors said their lack of communication with cities was because of the judge’s time pressure.

“There seems to be this belief that this board was given a significant amount of time to contemplate what a judge asked us to have an answer [to],” Nelson said.

“[On] Saturday at 9:30 [a.m., the judge] asked us to have a response to him by noon Monday.”

“I told Judge Carter last week that we are potentially making bad decisions because we’re moving too quickly, and we’re not communicating effectively with…the men and women who lead our cities,” added Spitzer.

But supervisors had weeks before that to prepare a plan.

On Feb. 13, Do, the supervisors’ chairman, committed to Carter in open court he would seek the placement of up to 400 shelter beds on county-owned land, and on Feb. 15 the supervisors committed to offering “appropriate resources” to the riverbed homeless people after 30-day stays in motels.

But five weeks after Do’s commitment, after homeless peoples’ 30-day motel stays started expiring, the supervisors voted to explore the three potential shelter sites without an explanation of how safety concerns would be addressed. And it took days for them to start explaining their plans for the shelter.

“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 [agreement],” Carter wrote in a March 22 court filing.

Asked why the supervisors didn’t come up with a plan for the expanded shelter before March 19, Spitzer suggested his colleagues weren’t really taking the idea seriously until Carter’s hearing on March 17 when he added the 150 to 200 people from the Civic Center to the county’s relocation responsibilities.

“If any supervisor actually contemplated this plan with sincerity, then they had an obligation to do that,” Spitzer said in an interview Tuesday evening, referring to the creation of a safety plan, including screening for sex offenders.

“But I never took it seriously, because I never [thought] any supervisor would agree to erect tents” in any community. “I never took it seriously because it was such a bad, horribly-thought-out concept.”

One of the elected officials who commented at the meeting Tuesday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), said Carter’s orders should be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I join the outrage that we are assuming responsibility for homeless people, taking care of their basic needs and elongating their agony by removing the necessity to make fundamental decisions about the way they live their lives,” Rohrabacher wrote in a blog post a few days before the meeting.

“The Board of Supervisors need [to] send buses to the Orange County homeless occupants, put these folks onto the buses and drop them on the steps of Jerry Brown, or perhaps, on the front lawn of Nancy Pelosi’s mansion.”

Public commenters also expressed frustration at the supervisors for stockpiling at least $180 million in unspent money that could be used to help address homelessness.

“You failed to perform your duty by stashing more than $200 million for the interest and did not do anything for many years,” said Lee Sun, a father of four who said he’s lived in Irvine for 16 years. The audience broke into applause.

County staff, meanwhile, said the reason the mental health money was built up was because the county was being conservative so services wouldn’t have to be cut during an economic recession.

“I commend you for realizing the mistake and [rescinding] today,” Sun said. “However, I also urge you not to repeat the same mistake again. Listen to the community…and listen to the local government. Work together, [and] we’ll have a solution.”

Another resident, Judith Jing, added regarding the stockpiled funds: “We will hold you accountable for neglecting the real needs of the homeless population, we will hold you accountable for endangering our children…and we will hold you accountable for mishandling taxpayers’ money.”

Answers about where shelters might be placed, and how they would be operated, could come at the April 3 court meeting.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him

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