Orange County supervisors Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposal by south county mayors to put a homeless shelter in a remote canyon on property currently used as a public library and a pre-school.
The supervisors’ 5-0 vote effectively killed the shelter plan just days after it was proposed by south county mayors. The supervisors’ approval was required if the county-owned land, at the former Silverado Elementary School, was to be converted into a shelter.
The move also shifts attention back to the south county mayors regarding where, if anywhere, they plan to place a homeless shelter. None of the mayors who supported the Silverado Canyon shelter spoke at the supervisors’ meeting and no county supervisors identified any potential locations in the cities.
But Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents most of south county, joined canyon residents and Lake Forest Mayor Jim Gardner in suggesting officials explore a series of smaller shelters in south county, which she called a “scattered site” approach.
“If we need to have a scattered site model for south county, or anywhere else in the county, we need to consider those options. And we need to figure out what’s going to work for everyone, including the cities, the mayors, the residents, and everyone involved – particularly the homeless population as well,” Bartlett said.
“The county seems to be adopting a large congregate housing model. But a hundred years experience with this model, [and] working with the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, demonstrate that this model is inherently flawed,” said Gardner, who has a Ph.D in clinical psychology and was the only south county mayor who opposed the Silverado shelter idea.
“The large congregate model presents problems of danger and anxiety to individuals who are already at risk. It isolates the homeless from the greater community, reinforcing their stigmatization and dehumanization, and making their transition even more difficult,” he added.
“The alternative is a distributed model in which small numbers of people are integrated into the broader community, and where each city addresses the problem given their numbers and their resources – and where the county, nonprofits, and private companies augment the services. Lake Forest stands ready to join such an endeavor.”
For four weeks, since April 3, the mayors have been under pressure from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter to collaborate with county officials on creating additional shelter beds in south county to off-set over crowding at existing shelters.
During their meeting last Thursday, April 19, the mayors voted 10-1 to propose the Silverado location. Canyon residents organized against it over the following days, gathering more than 2,800 signatures for an online petition opposing the site and organizing public speakers to comment at the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday.
The supervisors told county CEO Frank Kim to send a letter to the south county mayors telling them their proposed Silverado site, “as well as any other similar remote locations, would not constitute a feasible site for the sheltering of homeless persons.”
The supervisors’ discussion and decision happened in closed session, under an exemption to public discussions that applies to ongoing lawsuits.
During public comments before the closed session, Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represents the canyons area, told canyon residents the south county officials “got into a room” and decided they “would push this somewhere else, after everybody stood in Judge [David O.] Carter’s court and said they were committing to proportionality.”
“It’s really incumbent upon the city mangers to go back and look at sites in all their respective jurisdictions to take portions [of the shelter capacity], in order to resolve it amicably and equitably countywide,” Spitzer said.
The Silverado proposal had little support to begin with from the supervisors. Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson both announced their opposition to it over the weekend.
The supervisors’ formal rejection of it came after 33 residents of the canyons and nearby Lake Forest opposed the proposed Silverado shelter, citing a lack of public transportation, as well as fire risks and other safety hazards. Many of the residents said homeless people should have access to shelter and services, and called for a series of smaller shelters to instead be placed closer to doctors, jobs, and other resources.
“These [homeless] people need mental and health services,” said Valerie Clark, prompting applause from other canyon residents in the audience. “These people need transportation, they need sanitation, they need jobs, they need security services. And guess what? None of that is where this place is. None.”
“I admire the fact that all the mayors all want to get together…collaboratively and cooperatively with the county, to find a solution. But they need to go back to the drawing board and find a location, or locations, and spread these people out, that would actually work,” said canyons resident Joanne Hubble.
“The larger cities need to step up and share the load, and not simply adopt an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality,” said Frida Hauksdottir, another canyons resident.
Irvine Mayor Don Wagner has taken the lead among south county mayors in the shelter search. He said he was disappointed the supervisors rejected the proposed canyons site.
“I’m curious their reasoning since [Bartlett] and the [county] CEO were in the Mayors’ meeting when the site was proposed. I heard no specific objections from either of them,” Wagner said in a text message to Voice of OC.
“In fact, when the issue of remote sites was discussed, we were explicitly told that county services ‘were mobile.’ I’m obviously disappointed at such a perfunctory rejection of the site, apparently without any actual study or analysis. I expect the mayors will review the letter and consider what it says. Ultimately, though, the issue is whether we have satisfied the court’s requirements. I wonder how well Judge Carter will take the county’s perfunctory response.”
The south county mayors are next scheduled to meet about homelessness on May 10.
A Voice of OC reporter sent Wagner a follow-up text message asking if he anticipates the mayors will respond to the county’s letter before their May 10 meeting, where the supervisors’ rejection leaves the effort to find shelter, and whether smaller sites within the south county are a feasible option or not.
Wagner, who was presiding over a City Council meeting when he replied, wrote back that the mayors “probably won’t respond before [May 10] because there is no plan for such a meeting and we’re all reporting to our councils and public.” The mayors probably “can’t put a meeting together before then,” he wrote.
During their April 19 meeting, the south county mayors discussed the possibility of three smaller shelter sites within cities, Wagner said a few hours after that meeting. At the time, he said the mayors preferred the large single site in the canyons, which is outside their city boundaries.
The supervisors did not say which sites, if any, they consider potentially viable for homeless shelters within south county cities. They didn’t answer text messages after the meeting asking if there are any sites in south county cities they think are potentially feasible for homeless shelters.
The only supervisor to reply to the texts was Bartlett, who deferred to the mayors as the people responsible for picking a site.
“Judge Carter is tasking the south county mayors to determine feasibility of potential sites in south county,” Bartlett wrote.
Asked if the south county mayors seem open to the idea of smaller shelters in their cities, Wagner said via text: “Some seemed open; others didn’t. There’s much more discussion to be had.”
The supervisors have left it to city officials and Carter to find locations for expanded shelter capacity. Carter is deferring to the cities to identify locations but has warned he will lift their anti-camping laws if they don’t do so.
Carter is presiding over a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel on behalf of the faith-based volunteer group Orange County Catholic Worker and people who were about to be evicted from the Santa Ana riverbed.
The attorneys for homeless people also considered the remote Silverado location problematic.
“Places you can’t access are not necessarily a viable solution,” Weitzman said after a court meeting Monday evening. “It needs to be a place you can get to.”
The other lead attorney, Carol Sobel, said people want to be able to get to doctor’s appointments and grocery stores.
During their closed session discussion Tuesday, the supervisors also voted unanimously to have the county hire an outside law firm, Theodora Oringher, to help the county’s in-house attorneys with the county’s defense in the federal lawsuits over homelessness.
In a late March court filing, Carter 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.
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.
On Monday afternoon and evening, Carter held an hours-long meeting about homelessness in the courthouse with high ranking city and county officials. The officials included county supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do, Kim, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and Wagner.
Few details were available during or after the meeting, which Carter did not hold in public.
Weitzman and Sobel, the attorneys for homeless people, said they spoke with Carter early in the meeting. But they said they were in a separate room while the judge spoke in other rooms with officials, and that they didn’t know what happened in those conversations.
Asked what Carter was seeking – based on what she’s seen and heard, including on Monday –Sobel said the judge is trying to keep everyone focused on solutions.
“He wants all the cities and the county to stay [on the homelessness issue] and come up with solutions for everyone,” Sobel said.
Sobel noted the recent momentum towards creating permanent supportive housing for at least 2,700 homeless people, which organizers say would come online in phases over the next three years.
It will be “a while” before the housing is actually available, Sobel said. “The question is, what do we do immediately?”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.