OC Supervisors Leave it to Cities and Judge to Find New Homeless Shelter Sites

SUSAN MURPHY, KPBS

Orange County has considered setting up an emergency homeless shelter similar to this shelter in San Diego, according to OC Supervisor Shawn Nelson. About 324 people live at the Alpha Project's "Bridge Shelter" homeless shelter in downtown San Diego.

Orange County has run out of room at its emergency homeless shelters, and the county’s top two elected officials said Monday it’s up to city officials and federal Judge David O. Carter to take the lead in solving the problem.

“We need more emergency shelters,” said Andrew Do, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, at a public discussion in the supervisors’ meeting room.

“We have a problem. It is a problem that we all have failed to address…We don’t have sufficient capacity,” he said. And some of the existing shelters don’t meet the minimum legal standards for sheltering people with disabilities, he added.

Do and Vice Chairman Shawn Nelson emphasized they support finding new shelter locations and would create a new shelter if a viable location is presented to them. But Do said it’s up to the cities, which have consistently opposed new emergency shelters for single men and women, to find those locations.

“I am for a solution,” Do said Monday. “I just need cities to come up with alternatives for us to choose from.”

The cities probably will never allow shelters on their own, Nelson said, adding it’s now up to Carter. The judge recently said the shortage has left abused women and severely disabled people on the streets without a safe place to sleep at night.

“I sure [would] like to put the ball in Judge Carter’s court and say, ‘Look, you know, you’ve been pretty bold about saying you’re willing to weigh and let some people feel the wrath,” Nelson said. He said Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Fullerton should be exempt from adding new shelters because they already host emergency shelters.

“There’s a lot of people that have shouldered zero,” Nelson said, referring to emergency shelters for single men and women, the majority of homeless people.

“And I’m curious if they’ll ever shoulder any [shelters], to be honest…Unless they’re forced to.”

The city of Irvine has zoned a 100-acre piece of county-owned property for a homeless shelter, and under state law the city cannot block the county from putting a shelter there as long as the county follows certain procedures.

Last week, Nelson and other supervisors killed plans to put a shelter there after a public backlash.

Do and Nelson held the public discussion after the three other supervisors failed to show up Monday for an emergency board meeting to discuss homeless shelters. Do had given the board four days notice of the meeting. Without a majority of supervisors present, no official meeting could be held.

The discussion came in advance of a Tuesday morning federal court hearing on the issue with Carter and city officials from across the county.

Carter, who is presiding over federal lawsuits about Orange County’s shelter shortage, repeatedly has visited existing facilities and has said the county needs expanded homeless shelter options.

The judge has been deciding whether to issue an order banning cities and the county from enforcing anti-camping and loitering laws against homeless people. Precedent from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals says it’s unconstitutional to enforce laws against homeless people that criminalize unavoidable behaviors they need to survive, like sleeping, when there’s a shortage of adequate shelter beds.

Carter gave county and city officials seven weeks to figure out where 300 to 400 temporary emergency shelter beds might go on county land. And about two weeks ago, he called on county officials to work collaboratively with city officials on solutions, saying he’d prefer not to have to start issuing orders. He set Tuesday’s 9 a.m. hearing date at the Santa Ana Federal Court building to discuss their plans.

Nelson said local elected officials have every incentive not to try to find new shelter space.

“Anybody that wants to stick their neck out for this issue is gonna have nothing to show for it but a cut-off head,” said Nelson. “There’s no reward for even trying to get involved in this.”

As an example, he pointed to Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who voted to explore putting shelters in three cities. “Lisa stuck her neck out and made a tough vote. She came within an inch of getting recalled. Why? Because she just acknowledges there’s a problem, and wants to participate in the discussion. And the response is ‘how dare you?’ ” Nelson said.

“I told the judge what was gonna happen. It did,” Nelson said. “You know, if I was a facetious mean guy, I’d say I poked everybody on purpose just to prove a point. There’s probably a little bit of that that’s true. But it was sincere.”

Regarding pushback against shelters from Supervisor Todd Spitzer and city officials in Irvine, Costa Mesa, and elsewhere, Nelson added: “Why wouldn’t local politicians stand up and erupt [against proposed shelters]? It’s very popular. [It] looks like you care about your constituents.”

Nelson and three other supervisors voted March 19 to explore placing emergency homeless shelters in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel. But for days, as an angry and fearful backlash grew, Nelson and the other supervisors didn’t describe how the shelters would operate and what rules would be in place for issues like sex offenders and drugs. Nelson said days later neither would be allowed.

An estimated 2,000 opponents of the proposed Irvine emergency shelter turned out to protest at the supervisors’ March 27 meeting and the supervisors voted to kill all three shelter proposals.

Monday’s supervisors discussion came as city and county officials began to relocate about 200 homeless people from the the Santa Ana Civic Center. 

Referring to the other supervisors, Nelson said during Monday’s discussion: “I don’t know why all of our colleagues aren’t here. I have some suspicion.”

At another point in the discussion, he said, “I don’t know why we don’t have a quorum. But, figure it out.”

In a text message after Monday’s meeting, Bartlett told Voice of OC she could not attend the supervisors’ discussion because she had a previously scheduled meeting in her district about the county-operated Prima Deshecha Landfill  with city staff, a landfill expert, and the mayor and mayor pro tem of San Juan Capistrano.

“I originally tried to reschedule but realized it would be next month or so to get [it] back on the calendar,” Bartlett wrote.

The other two supervisors who didn’t attend – Spitzer and Michelle Steel – didn’t return text messages asking why.

At the meeting, Do and Nelson, as well as members of the public, criticized Spitzer, saying he whipped up fears from the public about homeless people based on false information.

“Labeling all homeless people as criminals, drug addicts, sex offenders – this fear mongering of ignorance coming from some of our officials leads the community to hate this class of people,” said Lou Noble, a homeless advocate who often speaks at Board of Supervisors meetings.

“It is sad how misconception works when people are ignorant to all the facts. We need to remember that Hitler used the same tactics, when people [were] oblivious and misinformed. And we all must remember that hate and God don’t mix.”

Do said Spitzer engendered “fear in the community by saying these [homeless people] are the worst of the worst, and bringing up false issues like [public commenters] mentioned earlier.”

“Instead of trying to monger fear, let’s work out a solution,” Do said.

Among the things Spitzer claimed was that new shelters would bring sex offenders to the community and threaten children’s safety. Days after Spitzer’s remarks, Nelson said publicly no sex offenders would be allowed at the proposed Irvine shelter.

One of the public commenters, homeless advocate Tim Houchen, said the county has long had a plan to address homelessness, known as the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, but that it appears to have been abandoned.

Houchen asked when it was abandoned, but received no answer.

The final annual update to supervisors about whether the 10-year plan has been followed appears to have been in 2013, according to county records.

And this January, at Do’s suggestion, the supervisors deleted the 10-year plan from the goals of the county’s homelessness commission without a replacement plan to reduce homelessness.

During Monday’s discussion, Nelson asked county staff to prepare a map or list of existing homeless shelters and services in Orange County. And he noted that areas known as SB 2 zones in each city and in unincorporated county areas, specifically allow emergency homeless shelters to be built there, with little to no ability for cities to block it.

Voice of OC published a map with both types of information Monday morning before the supervisors’ meeting. To see the map, click here

Members of the public who spoke at Monday’s supervisors’ discussion called on the supervisors to talk about the reality of homeless people.

“I think you need to say in a very positive way, you’ve been there, you’ve seen people in wheelchairs living on the streets,” said Mike Robbins, an Anaheim resident and advocate for homeless people.

“You’ve talked to them. Many are mentally handicapped. And you have to say, ‘We need to help them now.’ Those are the kinds of things we need you to say at the city council meetings to the people there.”

Carter has noted some of the people who moved from the Santa Ana riverbed homeless camp into motels got jobs as baristas, dish washers, and other professions, and others reunited with their family.

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