Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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County Counsel Leon Page barked at me outside federal court last week after I kept pressing Orange County supervisors directly about the cruelty of jamming existing homeless shelters to the breaking point before opening any new facilities to those in need.

Page’s point – which he made in public before the press corps – was that it was perfectly reasonable to expect 450 homeless people to sleep comfortably under the tarps set up several years ago as a temporary solution in the downtown civic center’s abandoned bus terminal, later called the Courtyard Transition Center.

On Sunday night, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter slapped that notion right down.

It’s part of the same song and dance that county supervisors have been trying to sell for months to the public – and now this federal judge – about their timid response to the homelessness crisis in Orange County.

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County supervisors keep trying to sell a few isolated and politicized stabs at shelters – like the Courtyard Transition Center and the Bridges at Kraemer – as a countywide sheltering system.

No one is buying that.

County supervisors did nothing, other than stockpile relevant state tax revenue, in recent years while tent cities erupted at the downtown civic center and the Santa Ana riverbed.

Meanwhile, hundreds of homeless died.

Despite being briefed on these stockpiled funds, in both budget and mental health plan updates, supervisors now say they had no idea they sat on millions while homeless residents died.

Supervisor Andrew Do has promised a reckoning on the issue.

Yet a different reckoning seems afoot.

When their colleague Supervisor Todd Spitzer needed a good public safety crisis for his DA campaign earlier this year, supervisors agreed to have the county start evicting the riverbed homeless.

Spitzer, an attorney and former prosecutor, assured the public that these people didn’t want help and Orange County had more than enough shelter space to withstand any legal challenge.

He’s been proven horribly wrong on both counts.

On Sunday night, Carter gave his own opinion about the ability of the courtyard to be jammed with 450 people in an order calling out the county.

“Even if the Courtyard was built for a capacity of 450, the Court is concerned that such a crowded facility is not an “appropriate resource” for some of the individuals exiting motels.”

Carter called out the county like a college student that just hasn’t done their homework, despite all their blustering.

“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.”

He’s a lot nicer than I would be.

Orange County officials had a month to get ready for sheltering people transitioning out of the temporary motel stays ordered by Carter.

Indeed, the staff at the County Health Care and Social Services Agency have done by all accounts an amazing job of establishing case management plans in many cases, according to Judge Carter. He’s also noted that many people are getting jobs and transitioning back into a normal life.

But county supervisors – the folks earning the big paychecks because they supposedly know how to solve big problems – have as usual dropped the ball.

Again, they hate their messy day job and instead prefer to politick.

Supervisors’ solution after arising from court was to spring three badly planned plans for homeless shelters on Orange County’s most affluent communities – all based on one afternoon of dais debate.

The sheer lack of political and policy preparation on this blew up in supervisors’ faces immediately. Cities erupted in protest with calls for supervisors’ resignations.

Spitzer, who is running for DA, quickly broke away from his colleagues, publicly criticizing their plan (which he voted against) and even went into their own districts, spurring angry city hall protests.

Since then, Spitzer’s colleagues have issued scathing criticism of his approach to spurring the protests with total disinformation.

Spitzer told city hall crowds that his colleagues want to destroy their quality of life by introducing “sex offenders” and the worst of the worst into their communities.

Even when confronted by reporters who noted that the county’s own records only found a few sex offenders in the riverbed population, Spitzer continued to repeat the accusation against his colleagues.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett – who had to confront Spitzer’s contentions in front of an ugly crowd in Laguna Niguel – told me on the way out of federal court last week that Spitzer’s actions were “shameful” and the result of an over the top campaign for DA.

She’s not alone.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson – who confronted Spitzer last week right from the dais for his over-the-top politicking of the homeless crisis – told me in an interview that the actions of going into other districts to criticize colleagues were over the top.

“When he thought it would make him DA, he stirs up this dust storm, then we’re sued because of his haste and on the way out of it, he (Spitzer) knows we have to have a plan. What does he do? Wait until we are in a bind, and instead of offering his own solution, which he doesn’t have, he does this tour in South County that the board of supervisors are a bunch of bastards.”

“It’s the most dishonest argument in the world. Todd is a dishonest broker, which is another term for a liar and you can quote me.”

I asked Spitzer all of these questions in front of the press print and radio corps last week just outside the federal courtroom, but he declined to answer any of them, instead opting to directly engage TV cameras.

Nelson to his credit was the lone source of reason on the board of supervisors during last week’s debate on housing options for the homeless.

He gave good reasons – such as institutional zoning and completed environmental impact assessments – for moving forward with homeless emergency housing on 100 acres of county land in Irvine.

Irvine City officials have already filed suit against the County of Orange to prevent such a use but I wonder how much of a case they really have given all the official approvals they’ve already given to homeless uses.

Nonetheless, I understand the nervousness of Irvine officials and residents who have no idea what the board of supervisors will propose for their area.

Now Nelson, who is running for Congress in the 39th District, also has been creative on the issue (pushing large tents as a way to jump start rapid re-housing) and is now partnering with State Senator John Moorlach to push state officials to open the Fairview Development Center campus in Costa Mesa for immediate homeless housing on the 100-plus acre lot.

I’m sure there’s a host of interests – like the Irvine Company or Five Points Development – in South County that would be keen on using their own legislative prowess in Sacramento to move state officials toward this aim.

It would seem better suited to help finance and legislatively authorize a regional solution in Costa Mesa than gearing up for a battle in Irvine.

Yet instead of working to garner the kind of regional and Sacramento support needed for that kind of bold initiative, Nelson is going to use his political capital on Tuesday to push for joining litigation against the State of California over its Santuary City policies.

Again, great fodder for a campaign for Congress.

But it won’t do squat to fulfill the county’s obligation to its poorest residents — the real day job that Nelson and his colleagues refuse to focus on despite their big taxpayer funded paychecks.

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