Santa Ana Wants All 34 OC Cities Included In Federal Homeless Lawsuit

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Santa Ana Police officers keep watch as county healthcare workers begin assessing the homeless people living in the Plaza of Flags at the Santa Ana Civc Center. April 2, 2018.

Santa Ana City Council members voted unanimously Wednesday to file legal action to bring all 34 Orange County cities into a homeless lawsuit under the jurisdiction of federal Judge David O. Carter, who has warned cities they need to expand homeless shelter options.

The move could grant Carter the ability to follow through on his warnings about banning enforcement of anti-camping laws if city officials, particularly south county mayors and city managers, don’t make progress in picking one or more shelter locations. Carter told city officials on April 3 he’d prefer they collaborate on shelter solutions.

“We are taking this action in order to allow the court to facilitate a county-wide solution to a county-wide problem,” Mayor Miguel Pulido said in a news release from the city. “Legal action may be the catalyst that helps us all find solutions for the County.”

Carter has said county officials have been “cramming” homeless people into already-full shelters in Santa Ana and Anaheim.

Among the problems the judge 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.

Carter has repeatedly said Santa Ana has done its share to host emergency homeless shelters and services, and that it’s time for other cities in Orange County to step up with a “proportional” share of services.

The Santa Ana vote was 6-to-0, with Councilman Sal Tinajero absent. Santa Ana’s lawyers will file the legal paperwork by the end of the week, according to the city’s news release.

Currently, the defendants in the federal civil rights lawsuits are the county government and four cities. Santa Ana officials said their new action is intended to expand Carter’s jurisdiction to all cities in Orange County, including south county mayors who have thus far not publicly identified potential shelter sites within their cities.

During meetings with city and county officials on March 17 and April 3, Carter said he wants to give city officials time to figure out shelter solutions. But the south county mayors’ April 19 proposal to put a homeless shelter away from their cities in a remote canyon – on property currently used as a public library and pre-school – was rejected Tuesday by county supervisors.

Santa Ana’s request to add the cities – if approved by Carter, which appears likely – could give the judge the ability to ban enforcement of anti-camping laws against homeless people in south county until adequate shelter is available.

Santa Ana hosts the county’s only year-round walk-in shelter for single men and women, known as The Courtyard, where about 400 people stay each night. The shelter is across the street from the federal courthouse in downtown Santa Ana and a block away from a charter high school.

Santa Ana council members and residents were furious last month when Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach rejected proposed homeless shelter sites.

They said those cities supported a double standard: It’s okay to put shelters near poor kids in Santa Ana but not near kids from wealthier families.

Santa Ana council members said Wednesday their goal was to keep other city officials focused on solutions and doing their fair share.

“The City of Santa Ana has been a leader in addressing homelessness in Orange County. We are willing to continue being a leader in these efforts, but we need the County and our fellow cities to be good partners,” Councilman Juan Villegas, who made the motion for the legal action, said in the city news release.

“There need to be more ideas, fewer roadblocks, and more of us asking: ‘How can we collectively move forward?’ Those without homes demand better of their cities. We demand better of our neighbors.”

During an April 3 public court meeting with mayors and city managers from across the county, Carter encouraged them to collaborate on creating additional shelter beds in south county to off-set overcrowding at existing shelters.

If the South County mayors don’t find a location for a new shelter, Carter said he would “follow the law” in the U.S. 9th Circuit’s Jones decision and ban cities from enforcing anti-camping laws against homeless people until adequate shelter capacity was available.

At the same time, he told the mayors he was encouraged by the ongoing efforts to address homelessness.

“There’s coalitions of goodness forming,” Carter said at the April 3 hearing. “Americans do step up. They do.”

At the end of that hearing, Carter thanked the mayors and city managers for being there, and he said they were not in the lawsuit at the present time but that “it’s one page away.”

The mayors set a meeting for April 19 to discuss potential shelter sites, and Carter said he wanted an answer soon after about whether they found a site. At the April 19 meeting, the mayors ended up voting 10-1 to recommend putting a homeless shelter in the canyon at the former Silverado Elementary School.

On Monday, Carter held a closed-door meeting in court with top county and city officials, including Pulido and Irvine Mayor Don Wagner. There was no public report of what was discussed.

Then, on Tuesday, the supervisors unanimously rejected the canyon shelter proposal, saying it’s not feasible.

A few hours later, on Tuesday evening, Pulido scheduled a special Santa Ana council meeting for Wednesday evening regarding the homelessness lawsuit.

At that meeting, council members voted unanimously to file a court complaint against all cities in Orange County and the county government “over the impacts of homelessness in the city of Santa Ana,” according to the official report out from closed session.

Wagner, who has taken the lead among south county mayors in the shelter search, said Santa Ana’s vote was “very disappointing.”

“I obviously haven’t seen the complaint so can’t evaluate it but believe that Irvine has done nothing illegal or actionable by Santa Ana. We will defend the city in whatever court they try to drag us,” Wagner, who is also a lawyer, said in a text message to Voice of OC.

When told the Santa Ana council members’ message was they’re doing this to try to keep the other cities focused on solutions, Wagner said: “That’s a dumb reason. Judge Carter got everyone’s attention. This is counter-productive and will drive up attorneys fees without increasing anyone’s ‘focus’ or get us any closer to that solution. Just dumb.”

Asked if Santa Ana’s move would give the court more jurisdiction to keep cities focused on collaboratively working on solutions, Wagner said: “Doubt it.”

In addition to serving as mayor of Irvine, Wagner is an attorney at Best Best & Krieger, a large municipal law firm that also represents the city of Santa Ana as its city attorney firm.

In an interview with Voice of OC after the meeting, Villegas said of himself and the other Santa Ana council members: “Everyone feels strongly” about adding the other cities to Carter’s jurisdiction, “and our council is united on this issue.”

Villegas also showed support for the idea of a series of smaller shelters in other cities, which was proposed by Lake Forest Mayor Jim Gardner and seemed to gain traction Tuesday from Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents south county.

Regarding this so-called “scattered site” approach, Villegas said, “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“The time for everyone to step up is now,” he added. “There is no ‘tomorrow.’ ”

Santa Ana council members said in recent days they’re receiving a much larger volume of complaints from residents than usual about homeless people around the city.

“It has taken too long for other Orange County cities to realize Santa Ana has dealt with an unfair burden for years. It is disappointing whenever I hear or read that some of our county’s cities would rather justify inaction due to community resistance or point to infeasible solutions as evidence of effort,” Councilman Vicente Sarmiento said in the news release.

“I hope our legal action spurs activity at both the County level and the local level to seriously pursue realistic solutions to providing resources for the county’s homeless population.”

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