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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It’s truly cruel and unusual to take people on the brink of madness and despair and punish them as criminals, for the mere fact of being homeless.

We shouldn’t need a court of law to remind us of that.

Yet that’s exactly what the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just did.

On Tuesday, the nation’s largest federal appeals court unanimously overturned a district court decision in favor of the city of Boise, Idaho, in a case where homeless people challenged city ordinances barring them from camping overnight on public property.

“…as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the justices ruled, in a decision that is binding on federal judges in California.

The decision has big implications for the homelessness crisis in Orange County.

Elected leaders from across Orange County were catapulted into the homelessness crisis back in February and March, when county supervisors haphazardly cleared illegal encampments that had sprung up in recent years along the Santa Ana riverbed.

The action also triggered hundreds of homeless streaming into nearby Anaheim and Santa Ana along with several federal civil rights lawsuits, arguing pretty much the same thing from Boise.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter has been overseeing the process in Orange County, trying to coax our local politicians to establish some sort of county sheltering system – one that would then allow strict enforcement of anti-camping laws when homeless people refuse to accept shelter and services.

Yet so far, our local politicians have been unable to come up with any sort of real plan for creating extra shelter capacity.

Indeed, as Carter prepares to hold a hearing this Friday to hear progress, he’ll likely get more noise.

Yet instead of allowing local politicians to distract with plans around specific properties, and expensive purchase plans involving big price tags and things like eminent domain, Carter and regional leaders should be focused instead on zoning.

That is what will ultimately get homeless people housed quickly.

Go where it’s already authorized.

There are three large public sector parcels in Orange County that are uniquely suited and zoned to quickly handling the needs of the homeless – as opposed to residential or industrial areas.

The Courtyard Transition Center in Santa Ana (a former bus terminal) lies within the county civic center and has worked well to house about 400 people on a nightly basis, many who of whom are the toughest to place.

Fairview Development Center in Costa Mesa – a soon to be shut down, state-run 100-acre campus – has been talked about for some time by mental health activists and Carter himself as a potential centerpiece in homelessness response because of it’s its sheer size and design as a residential health center.

Speaking of size, there’s another 100 acres of County open land that could be crafted to address homelessness in Irvine – land deeded to the County by the U.S. Navy after the closure of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

Back in the 1990s, when the base was scheduled for closure, the county’s plans for El Toro included using 300 former military housing units to shelter about 900 homeless people.

Yet on all of these fronts – nothing.

Week after week, our political leaders fail to engage on the obvious.

With the November elections so close, I can understand the enticement to just ignore the whole issue, demonize Carter and fight sheltering altogether.

Yet those who fight efforts to house homeless people don’t seem to understand that by doing so, they are virtually forcing jurists like Carter to invalidate local ordinances that enable police to hassle homeless people who don’t want help.

See the only way to actually get rid of homeless people is to help them.

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