Santa Ana Close to Opening 200-Bed Shelter; Suit Preps for Shift to South County

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter speaks with a homeless woman about the situation on the Santa Ana Riverbed during his tour of the area, Feb. 18, 2018.

Santa Ana is almost finished with a new 200 bed homeless shelter and Anaheim is preparing for another 325 beds in December and January, as a federal lawsuit prepares to focus on south Orange County cities that have so far declined to create shelter beds in their jurisdictions.

Local officials gave public updates in court Monday as part of the ongoing civil rights lawsuit. The suit centers on whether cities have enough available shelters to legally enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people by offering them an alternative to sleeping in public.

At the hearing, Santa Ana officials said they were able to design and construct the new 200-bed shelter in less than a month and that it will be opening soon at a location they have so far declined to disclose publicly.

“It took us 28 days to design and construct this temporary interim shelter, which is 35,000 square feet. It is going to take a total of 41 days for [the shelter operator] Mercy House to be fully operational,” said Councilwoman Michele Martinez, saying her message about the numbers is “to all Orange County cities and to the county of Orange.”

Martinez walked the packed courtroom through a video tour of the shelter’s interior, saying a goal was “bringing dignity and respect to this population.”

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter praised Santa Ana for moving quickly and said it’s a “role model” for the county, the state, and “maybe the nation.”

“I think this is something that every elected official should see in the county,” Carter said of the video tour of their new shelter.

Anaheim officials also said they’re pressing forward with plans for new shelters: a new 200-bed shelter at a Salvation Army facility, to open in late December to late January; and 125 beds operated by the Illumination Foundation in a building arranged by businessman Bill Taormina, to open potentially by Jan. 15. Carter pressed for both shelters to open by Dec. 15.

Other north OC cities have committed to opening 200 shelter beds in their cities, split between two shelters.

With the northern cities moving forward with shelters – and court-enforceable settlement agreements in the works – Carter is preparing to shift his focus to south county.

The lead lawyers for homeless people have said they will soon ask Carter to add south county cities to the lawsuit, and Carter has expressed frustration at the lack of a south county shelter site.

The judge has said he wants a shelter that’s centrally located in south county for law enforcement in those cities to take homeless people for health assessments.

The lack of such a shelter in south county “causes a disproportionate share [of homeless people] to go to another part of the county, and you’ve known that from the beginning,” Carter told county officials last month.

Adding to the calls for a south county focus, county supervisors’ chairman Andrew Do – who would vote on any settlement agreement involving the lead defendant, the county government – declared Monday that all OC cities need to be added to the case.

“North and Central Orange County are building homeless shelter space, while South County is rewarded for fear-mongering and obstruction,” Do said in a news release he issued Monday as county officials engage in final negotiations to settle part of the case.

“I will not support a settlement without all cities named in the lawsuit,” Do said, telling the attorneys for homeless people: “Bring every Orange County city as parties to this lawsuit.”

In their request to add south county cities, the attorneys for homeless people do not plan to include Laguna Beach, which already has a 45-bed shelter for single homeless men and women.

Adding south county cities to the case sets up the potential for a showdown between Carter and these cities.

City council members in south county – who are in charge of their cities’ legal strategy and land use – have been strongly resistant to the idea of adding shelter capacity there, and recognize their voters adamantly oppose hosting shelters in their cities as well, according to officials who have spoken directly to the council members.

Apparently referring to pushback he’s gotten that south county city council members are concerned about the November local elections, Carter said last month, “We’re not gonna work on [an] election cycle. Constitutional issues don’t work on an election cycle.”

South county homeless shelters have become a campaign issue, with the mayor of Irvine, south county’s largest city, featured in election ads promoting how he is blocking a proposed homeless shelter.

The mailers say Irvine Mayor Don Wagner, who is running for re-election next week, and Planning Commissioner Anthony Kuo, who is running for City Council, are “FIGHTING TO KEEP IRVINE SAFE BY BLOCKING THE PROPOSED HOMELESS SHELTER.”

A mailer sent to Irvine voters, from a committee funded mostly by Great Park developer FivePoint. Photo was modified to blur the recipient’s name and address.

Wagner has been the lead elected city official in south county homeless shelter discussions.

Great Park developer FivePoint and its lobbying firm Starpointe Ventures funded at least two-thirds of the political action committee that paid for the ads, Alliance for Jobs and the Economy.

FivePoint and Starpointe contributed $737,700 to Friends of the Great Park PAC (94 percent of its total funding), which gave $525,000 to Alliance for Jobs and the Economy (71 percent of its funding), according to campaign finance disclosures.

The Five Point-funded committee, while promoting Wagner’s opposition to the proposed Irvine shelter, has also financed the distribution of a social media video ad in recent weeks promoting Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido “solving homelessness,” in which Pulido talks about the city’s plans to open up new shelter beds in the city in the coming weeks.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido talks about solving the homeless crisis.

Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido talks about solving the homeless crisis.

Posted by Alliance for Jobs and Economy on Saturday, September 29, 2018

The video has been viewed about 16,000 times on Facebook, according to the social network.

The federal lawsuit now is moving into settlement agreements with the existing defendants – the county government and cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, and Costa Mesa – as well as 13 cities in north OC.

Those proposed settlements, which Carter also called consent decrees, would have the cities commit to creating additional shelter space, and have the county provide health outreach workers. The court would oversee their implementation for the next three years, and Carter has said the parties would be able to come to court within 48 hours to resolve disputes.

Throughout the hearing, the judge said he’d like to see police be able to enforce anti-camping and loitering laws, but that cities must have a shelter bed to offer people as an alternative.

Carter said under the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision last month in Martin v. Boise, cities can’t enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people until there’s a place for them to go to.

Santa Ana officials emphasized the point of contact with homeless people at homeless encampments will be health outreach workers, known as “blue shirts” for their light blue collared shirts.

The outreach workers have an ability to engage with people who are “wary” of government workers and have done a “tremendous job,” said Santa Ana Deputy Police Chief Ken Gominsky.

After cities provide additional shelter beds to Carter’s satisfaction, and outreach workers offer a homeless person a bed, Carter said anti-camping enforcement can move forward.

“After fair warning’s been given, then I’m right back to what I’ve promised – which is I do expect strong law enforcement,” Carter said.

At Monday’s hearing, Santa Ana officials said a crucial part of how they were able to work quickly on the new shelter was by creating a “war room” – a place where officials laid out all the potential obstacles from the beginning, communicated daily about any problems, and worked to fix them as they come up. Martinez said it created “a sense of urgency” and a “guiding coalition.”

Carter said the approach probably saved three to six months of time, by helping “cut through”  what he called “well-intentioned, bureaucratic inertia.”

In recent months, as the lawsuit continues on the 9th floor of the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, there’s been confusion on the streets about whether cities can enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people before the new shelters come online.

The cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim have issued hundreds of tickets this year for anti-camping, loitering, and storage of personal property in their cities, though the circumstances of the cases weren’t clear as of Monday.

Homeless advocates said earlier this month homeless people at Anaheim’s Maxwell Park were told by police they’d be arrested if they don’t leave the park by a certain date in October.

Carter, speaking to Mayor Tom Tait and other Anaheim officials at Monday’s hearing, said the park’s neighbors deserve the park back but that officials need to create bed space.

“If you move too quickly [you’re] going to get slapped with…injunctive relief,” Carter added, referring to a court order requiring the city to stop certain behavior.

“They’ve even got videos,” said Carter, who noted a few seconds earlier he had spoken directly with a homeless advocate who monitors the park.

“What you can’t do is you can’t move prematurely,” the judge told Anaheim officials. “I’ve got to [have] the spaces in Anaheim.”

Contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.