OC to Add Homeless Shelters in Irvine, HB & Laguna Niguel; Spend $70.5 Million on Mental Health

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Federal Judge David O. Carter speaks with a homeless woman about the situation on the Santa Ana Riverbed during his tour of the area, Feb. 18, 2018.

Orange County supervisors committed in court Monday to creating up to 400 new emergency shelter beds on county-owned properties in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, and spending about $70.5 million in stockpiled mental health money for housing and services for homeless people with serious mental illnesses.

“We need to move ahead, and we need to have this capacity up and running ASAP,” said the supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, during an emergency meeting Monday to take action stemming from federal lawsuits against the county.

During federal hearings Saturday and Monday, supervisors and attorneys who filed two civil rights lawsuits on behalf of riverbed homeless people, reached a series of agreements. Supervisors followed through with authorizing the agreements at their emergency meeting Monday afternoon.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said the supervisors didn’t know the mental health money was available to them and blamed county staff for not telling them. But Voice of OC wrote about the same unspent money in September 2015, and on March 8 this year. Spitzer was quoted talking about it in the 2015 article, and he joined the other supervisors in voting last June to devote $5 million of these funds to housing.

The supervisors, under pressure from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, last month moved more than 700 homeless people from camps along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium and temporarily put them up in motels. About 600 people remained in motels as of last week.

Now they’re requiring people to leave the motels as their 30-day stays expire and asking them to move to existing county shelters or, if recommended by a health evaluation, medical or mental health treatment facilities. In addition, at Carter’s urging, the county committed to sheltering roughly 150 to 200 more homeless people who are camped at the Santa Ana Civic Center.

The actions Monday, if fully carried out, would be among the most significant in Orange County’s recently to provide shelter for homeless people and expand housing with support services for people with serious mental illnesses.

Several issues still have to be worked out, including how the shelters will operate, how the county will address concerns from neighbors, exactly how the $70.5 million would be spent, and a dispute over when the county will start allowing people to go to the new shelter beds.

Part of the supervisors’ direction was to have county staff develop a plan for the new shelters and get input from local communities.

“We want to be good neighbors. We want to assure the public” that any county facilities “will not be a severe negative impact on the neighborhood,” Do said.

New Shelters

The new shelter beds would implement an idea proposed by Supervisor Shawn Nelson a year ago, which the rest of the supervisors rejected at the time. The beds would be in tents at county-owned properties in Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel, in that order, and only if the capacity is needed after the county’s existing shelters reach capacity.

When existing shelters fill up, tents with up to 200 beds would be added to the Irvine site, officials said. It will take at least two weeks before the first tents are ready at the Irvine site, according to county officials, who say they’re also working on a plan to minimize impacts on the surrounding area. The property is not close to homes or schools, and its nearest neighbors are an Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) bus base and the Second Harvest Food Bank.

Supervisors also directed county health officials to come back next month with details on how the $70.5 million in unspent state Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) funds should be used for housing and support services for people with serious mental illnesses.

County officials say there are likely more than 474 people with mental health issues who are homeless in Orange County, and the money designated Monday could house roughly 600 people, based on county cost estimates. Costs paid by the public, like emergency medical treatment, go down significantly when disabled homeless people people are housed, according to a study last year by UC Irvine.

Do, who proposed Monday’s actions to his fellow supervisors for approval, said it was prompted by Carter and concerns raised by attorneys for homeless people.

“Make no mistake about it, the decision we make is in fact in response to potential proceedings in court and possible orders from the judge,” Do said. The options available to the supervisors, he said, “are not just of our own choosing.”

Carter, at the Saturday hearing, had questioned the stockpiling of the funds, pointing to Voice of OC’s recent coverage of the issue and a state audit of the funds.

“Thank you very much. And I so appreciate that report,” Carter told Do about the planned actions. He later added: “Great things are being accomplished right now, in good faith.”

Supervisors’ Actions

The supervisors’ commitments and actions were:

  • Directed county staff to develop up to three sites for emergency shelter, in Irvine (100-acre county-owned site property the Great Park, with a capacity of up to 200 people), Huntington Beach (county-owned property along Gothard Street, with a capacity of up to 100 people), and Laguna Niguel (county-owned property near City Hall, with a capacity of up to 100 people).
  • Directed county staff to return to the supervisors with an operational plan for the three emergency sites.
  • Directed county Health Care Agency staff to return to the supervisors on April 17 with recommendations on how to allocate $70.5 million of unspent Mental Health Services Act funding for permanent supportive and shelter options. Only people with serious mental illnesses can be housed with these funds.
  • A commitment in court not to relocate any of the hundreds of homeless people out of motels until 48-hour notice is given to attorneys for homeless people with information about who is being moved, when, and where the county wants them to go. This allows the attorneys to challenge the county’s recommended placement if a homeless person feels it’s inappropriate, such as separating a married couple. The agreement was encouraged by Carter at Monday’s hearing, after Brooke Weitzman, a lead attorney for homeless people, said the county had not followed through on an agreement reached Saturday, under Carter’s supervision, to provide accurate information at least 48 hours in advance of homeless people being moved out of motels.
  • Directed county staff to contract with the nonprofit developer American Family Housing for a 12-unit location that can accommodate couples.

The moves Monday were welcomed overall by Weitzman, the lead attorney in the main lawsuit Carter is presiding over, on behalf of seven homeless people alleging civil rights violations if inadequate shelter options force them into cities where it’s illegal to camp in public.

“We’re excited to see the county really committing to spending the [mental health] money for some long term solutions,” Weitzman said in a phone interview after Monday’s actions.

But a sticking point likely will be how long before county officials start opening the new shelters. 

“We are really excited that the county took some steps today” to start creating shelter space, Weitzman said. “But that doesn’t excuse” trying to “shove people into a space” that’s already exceeded its safe capacity, she said.

County officials say they won’t open up the new shelter sites until the capacity at the existing shelters is reached, which they put at 193 people for the Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim and 450 for the Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana.

But Carter suggested Saturday he believed the real capacity at the Courtyard was closer its former listed capacity of to 380, which would put it near capacity now.

County officials said they’ve added capacity. But Carter said they did it by “reconfiguring beds.” He said it’s “nonsense. It’s supposed to be 380.”

If the county’s position doesn’t change, Weitzman said she’ll take the issue to the judge.

“If the beds [for] men at Bridges were full and the county wanted to continue moving people” out of motels without additional shelter locations, “we would likely bring that back to [Judge] Carter,” she said.

Carter held his court hearing at noon Monday, so the five supervisors paused their closed session discussion of the homelessness lawsuit and four of them walked from the County Hall of Administration over to Carter’s federal building courtroom. When the judge walked into the courtroom, he warmly greeted the supervisors and attorneys for the county and homeless people and thanked them.

The $70.5 Million

The $70.5 million in unspent mental health money was publicly disclosed by Voice of OC in 2015. Another Voice of OC article earlier this month noted $186 million in such funding, which was sitting in investment accounts, could be used to help house and provide services to seriously mentally ill people who are homeless.

When Voice of OC interviewed county officials on March 2, they didn’t have an answer for how much of the roughly $186 million in unspent funds, which are not in reserves, could be used to help address homelessness.

Two weeks later, during Carter’s hearing Saturday, he cited the Voice of OC article and the state audit, and said he wanted to see the mental health money spent.

“This is ready-made money, now. Taxpayer money. And I want it,” said Carter, prompting loud applause from the audience.

Do then spoke to the crowd of roughly 200 county officials, city officials, homeless people, advocates, and journalists at the hearing. He said he and other officials had “failed” to take leadership, and hadn’t spent the money because of “political paralysis.”

After supervisors made their follow-up commitments to Carter in court around 12:30 p.m. Monday, they went back to the county meeting room and took official action to start the process of deciding how the $70.5 million should be spent.

“I’m embarrassed,” Supervisor Todd Spitzer said of the lack of spending of the mental health money on housing for severely mentally ill people. He attributed the lack of spending to staff hiding it from the supervisors, and Do alleged staff engaged in “willful negligence, if not intentional misrepresentation” about the funds.

“We did not know that those dollars were potentially available to build housing,” Spitzer said.

But the annual Mental Health Services Act spending plans, which supervisors approve each year, have an entire section called “Housing,” which explains that the funding can be used for it. And the supervisors, at the request of Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, voted last June to authorize $5 million of the money for housing.

Supervisors, including Spitzer, also have known for more than four years about the scale of the unspent mental health money.

“In my opinion, every single dollar shouldn’t be in a bank…it should be out on the street, helping people get services,” Spitzer said of the money at a 2013 supervisors’ meeting, which Voice of OC quoted in the 2015 article.

The unspent funds are disclosed clearly in county budgets and the annual mental health spending plans approved by the supervisors.

The mental health money, which is funded by a 1 percent state income tax on millionaires, can only be used to house people diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and major depression.

A cost study last year by UC Irvine found housing chronically homeless people in permanent supportive housing saves the public $45,000 per year, mostly from reduced emergency room visits, and jail stays.

Aside from the financial savings, “the savings in lives, recovery, and dignity are incalculable,” said the county’s behavioral health director, Mary Hale, in a written response to questions from Voice of OC earlier this month.

The actions Monday were a major shift for a majority of the supervisors, who a year ago rejected a proposal by Nelson to use two of the same properties for emergency homeless shelter beds in tents.

The supervisors’ actions came just a few days after one of the world’s largest law firms joined the other lawsuit against the county on behalf of homeless people. The firm, Latham & Watkins, notified the federal court last week that it was joining the Legal Aid Society’s case on behalf of homeless people formerly at the riverbed.

With roughly 2,200 attorneys, Latham & Watkins brought in the most gross revenue – $2.8 billion – of any law firm in the world in 2016, according to the magazine The American Lawyer.

Do noted Carter has considered multiple requests for restraining orders against the county’s planned evictions of homeless people from the Santa Ana River Trail and motels. The requests came from Weitzman and the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, as part of their ongoing lawsuits about the riverbed eviction.

Carter granted one restraining order for a few days last month, until a hearing in which he told the county it could clear out the riverbed camp, but must do so humanely and provide temporary shelter to everyone who was living at the riverbed.

The Debate

Spitzer’s views seemed to swing during the public discussion Monday. At one point he argued the county treats animals better than homeless people, before saying the supervisors shouldn’t be complying with the judge’s requests for more homeless shelter capacity.

“We opened an animal shelter for $35 million. And we are taking care of our animals better than we are the homeless this county,” Spitzer said.

Later in the discussion, Spitzer called on his colleagues to challenge Carter’s requests to provide more shelter, citing potential impacts to neighborhoods.

“Honestly it’s time to push back on Judge Carter,” Spitzer said. “To think that we have to create a bed for every single person who we moved off the riverbed is ludicrous to me.”

The county’s plan is add new beds as they’re needed, not create a bed for everyone who was formerly at the riverbed.

Nelson told Spitzer, “I’m just fascinated that we were just standing in front of said judge and you didn’t make any of those comments.

“You want to just – for the press, and for whatever else you got going on – you want to feign offense and stand up and fight and [say] ’everybody ought to go to hell’ – well fine. But that’s not solving anything. And if you don’t want to solve this problem, then just admit it. You want somehow to bail out yourself with your own constituents. Cause I know what this is, and everybody else listening knows,” Nelson added.

“The reality is, the judge had to finally order because we wouldn’t do stuff that we should have done a year ago. But it’s just not popular.”

Spitzer, a candidate for District Attorney, replied he supports more beds, just not at new locations, and that he would not “vote to push this into communities” when some homeless people refuse services.

The vote to adopt the expanded shelter proposal was 4-1, with Spitzer opposing it.

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