A view of the building at 2229 S. Yale St. in Santa Ana. Credit: Google

Orange County officials are moving forward with plans to buy a 62,000 square-foot building in a Santa Ana industrial area and turn it into a shelter for up to 600 homeless people.

During their regular meeting Nov. 20, the supervisors voted unanimously to start the process of purchasing the building, at 2229 S. Yale Street, about a half-mile south of Santa Ana’s Centennial Park.

Their official action included approving a $12.25 million purchase agreement with its owners, Omega Engineering, Inc.

County officials plan to relocate The Courtyard, the county’s current shelter in Downtown Santa Ana for roughly 400 people, to the new shelter, which would have as many as 600 beds and was called “Yale” at Tuesday’s meeting.

The purchase is expected to be finalized by the end of February, county officials said.

If the sale goes through and the new shelter opens, it would be the largest homeless shelter in Orange County.

The move stems from pressure officials face in a federal civil rights lawsuit to resolve a homeless shelter shortage in the county, as well as from constituents upset about the effects of homelessness. The suit, which U.S. District Judge David O. Carter is presiding over, threatens to strip cities’ ability to enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people unless they create enough shelter for people to be offered a bed.

Santa Ana Showed How Fast Shelter Can be Built, Supervisors Say

County supervisors pointed to Santa Ana’s recent experience opening a new temporary shelter in less than two months as inspiration, while cautioning the Yale shelter could take longer due to its larger capacity and need to host a broader range of people who would be eligible to stay there.

“Let’s learn a lesson from the fact that things can be done quickly if there’s a desire and an effort to do them quickly,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson.

“I realize we’re going to do things differently from Santa Ana potentially did, as far as…how much infrastructure goes into a location. But I think that’s a great lesson to learn.”

The purchase is not final, with county officials planning to conduct “due diligence” during escrow to research and inspect the property. In the past, that process has taken up to 90 days, though in this case Nelson and supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do called for urgency.

“Whatever the plan is, I just encourage you all, jump this thing and get it done. Time just kills momentum with this stuff,” said Nelson, who is termed out of office in early January.

“Get the improvements done, post-haste. A mad rush. The quicker this thing is in our inventory and operational, the better.”

Do agreed, saying Nelson “is absolutely right on…We know what can be done.”

The supervisors’ chairman said he and top county staff have “a commitment that going forward, we’re going to try to get everything done as fast as possible.”

Secrecy Around the Shelter Plans

Up until last Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting, county staff kept secret the fact that the Yale building was planned to be used as a shelter. The agenda documents about the building purchase were issued publicly days before the meeting, as required by law, but made no reference to a homeless shelter.

The staff report didn’t give any explanation for what the building would be used for. The only reference to a potential use, which was in an attachment 23 pages into the documents, simply described the building as being for “community services.”

And leading up to the meeting, the county’s chief spokesperson declined to say if the building was being purchased for a shelter, and said the use hadn’t been determined.

But during the meeting, the supervisors were clear that the purpose was for a homeless shelter, and that they had previously discussed privately how many people could stay there.

There would be “up to 600” homeless people at Yale, Do said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The supervisors may have discussed the property purchase during a closed session about the federal lawsuit, Catholic Worker v. County of Orange.

Asked if this was the case, County Counsel Leon Page said Tuesday he could not “comment on matters discussed in closed session.”

Restaurant Meals Program Expanded

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the supervisors voted unanimously to expand the county’s Restaurant Meals Program, which has been in effect since February in Santa Ana and Anaheim and allows elderly, disabled and homeless people on food stamps to buy meals at participating restaurants using their food stamp credit.

The move expands the program to the entire county, at restaurants that choose to participate. The program, which staff said is intended to expand food access to people who can’t store or cook food, doesn’t use county taxpayer dollars. Rather, it uses existing food stamp dollars through the state’s CalFresh program, according to staff.

As of last month, 39 restaurants were participating in the program in Santa Ana and Anaheim, according to county staff.

Funding Approved for Up to 300 New Shelter Beds in Placentia and Buena Park

At the same meeting, supervisors signed off on the distribution of $15.6 million in one-time state homelessness money to local cities and nonprofit groups, known as the Homeless Emergency Aid Program or HEAP.

About $12 million of that money will go to the cities of Placentia and Buena Park, to create up to 300 shelter beds split between two shelters that would serve north county cities.

Potential Complications with New 600-Bed Shelter in Santa Ana

Regarding the proposed Yale shelter in Santa Ana, Do noted it would be different from Santa Ana’s temporary shelter, which is smaller at 200 beds, operates for a limited duration, and has more stringent requirements for who can stay there.

“I think we rightfully applauded Santa Ana for stepping up and creating [the temporary shelter]. But let’s look at what that that facility is designed for, what type of clients and criteria they have to meet to be admitted into that facility. It’s very limited,” Do said.

“And so that…brings forth a whole different type of clientele and the type of accommodation that you have to build, and the volume that [you] have to build it at,” he added.

With the larger Yale facility, Do said, “As you increase the number of people…the challenges become exponential. So let’s keep all of that in mind.”

Santa Ana’s temporary shelter, The Link, is scheduled to last for two years, before the building is demolished to make way for a new development.

The Link is not a walk-up shelter and people will have to get a referral through a city contractor and checked out by the police department’s homeless liaison officer, before they’re allowed in, according to city officials.

How the Yale Purchase is Paid for

In addition to the $12.25 million purchase price for the Yale property, the supervisors allocated up to $300,000 for other costs that come up in buying the building, such as fees and “due diligence” during escrow like engineering reports and hazardous material assessments.

The $12.55 million total cost, for now, comes from general county taxpayer dollars, which are the most flexible and available for the county to quickly make purchases. Later on, county officials could try to use other types of funding, such as federal homelessness money or state grants, to reimburse the building cost.

The price that would be paid to the owners comes out to about $197 per square foot of building space.

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

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