The number of people sleeping on streets and under bridges in Orange County skyrocketed in recent years, affecting local residents, businesses, and people experiencing homelessness.
In 2018, OC saw more action toward getting homeless people off the streets and into shelter than any other time in recent memory. Spurred by a lawsuit and a federal judge, as well as frustration from residents and business owners, officials have promised to create more than 1,400 shelter beds – most of which are committed to in court-supervised settlement agreements.
And close to $1 billion may be on the table to create housing with supportive services for homeless people, with state and local leaders creating a regional agency to oversee the financing.
There are still a lot of details to be worked out – including how the shelters will operate, how public safety concerns will be addressed, and whether the housing will actually happen. Here’s a rundown of Orange County’s year in homelessness policy.
Riverbed Eviction Sparks a Lawsuit, and a Federal Judge Spurs Action
The year began with county supervisors preparing to have law enforcement evict hundreds of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed near Angel Stadium, without another place for most of them to go.
The riverbed camp – OC’s largest homeless encampment in years – had spurred complaints from nearby residents and businesses, who pointed to thefts, drug use, needles and human feces. (County supervisors and the Anaheim City Council had previously refused to allow portable bathrooms at the riverbed camp.)
As the county moved forward with voluntary evictions, the five county supervisors quietly disbanded the county’s Commission to End Homelessness and deleted the central guide for its work – the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness – which was the byproduct of years of community input and had emphasized expanding the affordable housing supply for homeless people as a “top priority.”
Attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel filed a federal lawsuit against the county and three cities over the riverbed evictions, pointing to a shortage of shelter space in OC. Their suit alleged the county would be violating the U.S. Constitution by forcing homeless people into a situation where they’d be criminalized by anti-camping ordinances with no alternative place to sleep and avoid prosecution.
The suit was based on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2006 ruling in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, which found the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibited a local government “from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter.”
The appeals court said that enforcement becomes illegal in Los Angeles when “there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds.”
That precedent – which the 9th Circuit later made mandatory for federal judges in California in September 2018 – formed the basis under which U.S. District Judge David O. Carter pressed the county and OC cities to expand their shelter capacity in order to be able to enforce anti-camping laws against homeless people.
Carter, who presides over Sobel and Weitzman’s lawsuit, sent the first shot across the bow late at night on Feb. 6, when he issued a restraining order halting further riverbed evictions until a hearing a week later. The order came in response to Sobel informing the judge of a county email saying law enforcement would, the following day, start threatening to arrest people who remained – contrary to what the county had previously told the court it would do.
At the first court hearing in the case, on Feb. 13, Carter told county and city officials they could move forward with riverbed evictions the following week, but only if they found short-term shelter for the hundreds of homeless people facing eviction.
The judge also grilled county officials about the county’s apparent accumulation of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money that could help alleviate homelessness. “We’re done with chipmunking this money,” he told county officials.
The next day – which happened to be Valentine’s Day – county officials agreed to a plan to offer motel beds for 30 days to homeless people being evicted from the riverbed.
On Feb. 20, Carter allowed the riverbed evictions to proceed, but only if motel beds were offered and mental health outreach workers were the point of contact talking with homeless people, rather than sheriff’s deputies being the initial contact. And the judge was there throughout the evictions, closely monitoring the process.
When sheriff’s deputies moved into part of the homeless camp to evict people before health workers arrived to offer housing and services, Carter angrily reprimanded the county’s top lawyer, Leon Page, saying, “I hold you completely responsible.”
On Feb. 26, after a week of court-supervised evictions, the riverbed camp was cleared and more than 700 homeless people were temporarily sheltered in motels and elsewhere.
County, Facing Criticism, Starts to Use Unspent Mental Health Money
On March 8, while the former riverbed homeless people were still in motels, Voice of OC reported the county appeared to have at least $230 million in unspent money it could use, in collaboration with other officials and community groups, to help address homelessness.
Even half of the money would be enough, when combined with other sources, to build permanent supportive housing for more than 1,000 disabled homeless people, including those with serious mental illnesses, according to what county officials previously said it cost.
Most of the money – $186 million – was unspent Mental Health Services Act money that was separate from reserves. The unspent money can be used for housing and services for the estimated 10 to 20 percent of homeless people with serious mental illnesses.
The following week, at a Saturday federal court hearing in the Santa Ana City Council chambers, Carter pointed to Voice of OC’s reporting and a state audit of the mental health funds and pressed county officials about why it hasn’t been allocated.
“My law clerks haven’t slept. My externs haven’t slept. We’ve been going through county budgets like you cannot believe,” Carter told the packed hearing.
Minutes later, the supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, told the crowd of activists, homeless people, county officials and city managers there was no defense for their inaction.
“We don’t have a defense. I’m going to be the first to own up that we have failed,” Do said at the start of the hearing, to loud applause. “To lead requires we are proactive and not reactive, and we have failed,” he added, attributing it to “political paralysis” that also affects cities.
Do then announced the county would move to allocate $70 million of the unspent mental health dollars to help alleviate homelessness for people with severe mental illnesses.
Two days later, on March 19, the supervisors started to follow through, directing public health staff to provide recommendations on how to allocate the $70.5 million for permanent supportive and shelter options for people with serious mental illnesses.
As of December, the supervisors have designated $40 million of the money to a pipeline of 284 housing units, the first of which is under construction, with another scheduled to start in January.
Three-Shelter Proposal Falls Apart, While Court Pressure Continues
With hundreds of homeless people in 30-day motel stays from February to March, county supervisors faced pressure to find places for them to go next.
The federal judge held court meetings late into the night with county officials and lawyers for homeless people, going through cases of individual homeless people and whether the place the county wanted them to go – such as mental health facility or general shelter – was appropriate.
On March 19, the supervisors proposed three new shelters, in Irvine, Laguna Niguel, and Huntington Beach. But that plan soon fell apart amid intense backlash from residents, businesses and city councils in those cities.
Carter, meanwhile, kept up the pressure, pointing to “decades of neglect” of homelessness and warning of an impending emergency as the hundreds of homeless people whose motel stays were ending were asked to move to new beds county officials were “cramming” into already-full homeless shelters.
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.
Santa Ana Alleges Double-Standard Based on Wealth
For years, Santa Ana has hosted the most homeless shelter beds of any city in OC. And in late March, City Council members, residents, and Do pushed back at the refusal of wealthier Orange County communities to host emergency homeless shelters. They said it revealed a double standard: It’s okay to put shelters near poor kids but not near kids from wealthier families.
Additional pressure to find shelter came in April, when Santa Ana and county officials cleared out the roughly 200 homeless people living in the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Later that month, Santa Ana moved to add all OC cities to the homelessness lawsuit, but backed off when it was met with backlash from other cities, including in south county.
In court hearings in April, May, and June, Carter called on cities other than Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Fullerton – which host most of the existing shelter beds – to step up with a “proportional” share of new shelter beds. He warned repeatedly that without action, the court could invalidate anti-camping laws.
North County Cities Commit to Hundreds of New Shelter Beds
At a June 13 court hearing, three north Orange County cities committed to adding a total of 700 new homeless shelter beds at specific sites – on top of the more than 1,000 shelter beds already in north county – while south county mayors didn’t identify any potential shelter sites in their cities.
In August, Carter held another hearing to demand progress on the shelter promises, where he posed detailed public questions to city and county officials about why they hadn’t finalized an agreement to create a new shelter.
On Sept. 4, the federal appeals court handed Carter clearer authority to invalidate anti-camping ordinances. Its unanimous decision in Martin v. City of Boise expanded Jones to anti-camping laws and made it mandatory for federal judges in California and elsewhere in the Western U.S. to follow it.
“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 ruling states.
Three days after the Martin ruling, on Sept. 7, Santa Ana and county officials told Carter they would open a total of 400 new homeless shelter beds by the end of December.
The first of these shelters, known as The Link, opened Nov. 15 in Santa Ana with a capacity of up to 200 beds. Some homeless people said the city was strictly limiting who was allowed at the shelter, though by early December about 125 people were staying there, according to city officials.
Anaheim officials opened an emergency 200-bed shelter near Angel Stadium on Dec. 20, to be replaced by a 200-bed shelter at a Salvation Army facility scheduled to open in January. An additional 125-bed shelter scheduled to open in the city in February.
Settlements in the lawsuit, which set the shelter commitments, have been approved with Anaheim, Orange and Tustin, with Carter retaining jurisdiction over the agreements’ implementation for three years.
Over the course of the year, local officials have rethought the way they look at homelessness, said Weitzman, who represents homeless people in the ongoing lawsuit.
“They’re starting to take a real serious look at what it takes to allow someone to rebuild their life” and have dignity, Weitzman said in an interview.
Weitzman said she’s confident that in the next year or so, there will be a place for everyone in north county who wants shelter.
Where the New Shelters Stand
Under pressure from the lawsuit, officials have opened 200 new shelter beds with another 1,400-plus beds in the works:
- The Link temporary shelter in Santa Ana (200 beds for two years): Opened Nov. 15 in an industrial building on Red Hill and Warner avenues, next to the 55 freeway and Tustin city border.
- Anaheim emergency shelter near Angel Stadium (200 beds for up to 90 days): Short-term shelter opened Dec. 20 near Angel Stadium at 2040 S. State College Blvd., after the Anaheim City Council decided its other two shelters, which are scheduled to open in early 2019, won’t be up in time to help homeless people escape the winter weather.
- Anaheim temporary shelter at Salvation Army’s “Center of Hope” (200 beds for about two years): Scheduled to open in January at the Salvation Army property at 1340 South Lewis St., and to remain open until the larger “phase two” shelter opens in late 2020.
- Anaheim temporary shelter at former piano store (125 beds for up to three years): Shelter at 3035 East La Mesa St., next to the county-run Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter, with opening scheduled in February. Shelter would be operated by The Illumination Foundation.
- Anaheim longer-term shelter at Salvation Army’s “Center of Hope” (400-600 beds, to replace the 200 temporary beds at this location): Scheduled to open in late 2020 at the Salvation Army property at 1340 South Lewis St.
- Placentia shelter (80 to 100 beds): Location and opening date have not been announced. County supervisors recently authorized seeking state funds for the shelter. The beds would serve north county cities, not including Anaheim, and were agreed to in a legal settlement in the ongoing lawsuit.
- Buena Park shelter (150 to 200 beds): Location and opening date have not been announced. County supervisors recently authorized seeking state funds for the shelter. The beds would serve north county cities, not including Anaheim, and were agreed to in a legal settlement in the ongoing lawsuit.
- Tustin shelter (at least 50 beds): Proposed shelter at a former U.S. Army Reserve building at 2345 Barranca Parkway, next to the shopping center The District at Tustin Legacy. An earlier proposal, at the northeast corner of Red Hill and Valencia avenues, was met with significant backlash from residents citing its proximity to an elementary school, and the City Council changed the location Dec. 18.
- Costa Mesa shelter (50 beds): Proposed shelter in Costa Mesa with the opening date and location not yet announced. In September, city officials committed in Carter’s courtroom they would move quickly to create the shelter.
- Yale shelter in Santa Ana (600 beds, to replace the county’s roughly 400-person Courtyard shelter, for a net 200 new beds): The building, at 2229 S. Yale St., is being purchased by the county, with the sale expected to be finished by the end of February. County officials don’t expect the shelter to open for several additional months, if not longer.
Will South County Add a Homeless Shelter?
Carter has signaled he plans to shift his focus in the lawsuit to south county, where he wants to see a centrally-located “intake center” for homeless people. This would provide a place for local law enforcement in south county to take homeless people, rather than tying up their time driving to north county, the judge has said.
The central region Carter described seems to match with areas along the I-5 freeway in south county.
South county mayors previously proposed a shelter at a remote location outside their cities’ boundaries: Silverado Elementary School in the county’s rural canyons. But it was rejected for a number of reasons, including being too far from medical and social services.
Another possibility is south county cities chipping in financially for the creation of shelter beds elsewhere, an approach used by the 16 cities of Salt Lake County, Utah as well as cities in north Orange County.
Sobel and Weitzman, the lawyers for homeless people, have been preparing an amended lawsuit to add several south county cities to the case, which could give the judge jurisdiction to limit anti-camping enforcement if the cities don’t move to expand shelters. The request would not include Laguna Beach, because it already hosts a homeless shelter open to single men and women, according to the lawyers.
Their plans to file the lawsuit expansion have been delayed several times in recent months, as details are worked out regarding the new Santa Ana and Anaheim shelters, as well as day-to-day issues like helping people get in to shelters, out of shelters, and deal with problems like bed bugs.
Officials familiar with internal city discussions say they do not expect south county cities will create a homeless shelter in their jurisdiction unless they’re forced to do so. South county cities, they added, have suggested they’re prepared to appeal any orders Carter might issue against anti-camping enforcement.
Conversation Grows Around Longer-Term Homeless Housing
While shelters can be a short-term improvement for people, solving homelessness requires longer-term housing options that are affordable, particularly for homeless people with severe disabilities, according to advocates and city and county officials.
The momentum centered around a plan for 2,700 new units of permanent supportive housing, put forward by the Association of California Cities – Orange County.
The effort has backing from the Orange County United Way, which started an ad campaign after the November election noting that keeping a homeless person on the streets costs an estimated $100,759 per year, verses $51,587 if they’re in housing with support services, based on a UC Irvine study.
The state Legislature also supported the effort, unanimously approving a new law creating a regional Orange County agency to finance 2,700 homes for homeless people. The bill, which creates an Orange County Housing Finance Trust governed by city and county officials, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown and takes effect Jan. 1.
A group of Orange County business and city leaders who support the 2,700-unit plan publicly told supervisors hundreds of millions of dollars in state grants for addressing homelessness likely would become available in 2019, and called on OC county and city officials to work together to compete for OC’s “fair share” of the funds.
A need for city-county cooperation also was emphasized by the Orange County Grand Jury in a May report.
That same month, county supervisors started investing in supportive housing services by The Illumination Foundation, to house more than 60 of the most seriously ill homeless people. On-site staff include case managers, mental health workers, psychiatrists, therapists, housing navigators, and peer recovery counselors who have been through experiences similar to the homeless people.
Several major questions still need to be resolved for the new regional agency, commonly known as the housing trust, including the balance of power on its governing board, who its executive director will be, and how it will make decisions about which projects to finance.
Close to $1 Billion Potentially in Play for New Homeless Housing
The entire homeless housing effort’s price-tag is estimated at $900 million, according to Dan Young, a former Santa Ana mayor and Irvine Company homebuilding executive who has been closely involved in the housing trust effort.
The housing trust bill “puts the cities at the table,” for cities that choose to join the regional agency, Young told Carter and the public at a court hearing in June.
“You have a seat at the table for $900 million-worth of money.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].