Federal Judge Presses OC Officials on Lack of Mental Health Shelter, Housing

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Federal Judge David O. Carter, center in blue sweater, is flanked by lead attorneys for the county and homeless people as he makes his way through the Santa Ana River homeless encampment during a Feb. 14, 2018 tour.

One of Orange County’s next homeless shelters could be in the region that so far has refused to host new shelters – the affluent south county suburbs.

A federal judge, expressing his frustration Tuesday at the lack of appropriate shelter in Orange County for homeless people with severe mental illnesses, suggested they might ultimately be sheltered and treated on a large tract of block-sized parking lots surrounding a pyramid-shaped federal complex in the affluent suburb of Laguna Niguel.

A year after county officials evicted hundreds of homeless people living in encampments on the Santa Ana riverbed, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter on Tuesday convened a public status meeting in ongoing federal civil rights lawsuits that have the potential of blocking cities’ ability to enforce anti-camping laws.

Carter invited many top public officials in Orange County to the hearing. One by one, city officials stepped to the podium in front of Carter’s dais and detailed their progress on creating shelters.

The only region not to speak at the hearing was south county cities, which so far have resisted shelter efforts. The only south county official to speak to Carter was Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who did not report any progress on sheltering in her part of the county.

While Carter positively praised the progress of the last year in establishing certain basics of a homeless care system in Orange County, he also was visibly frustrated with the inability of county, state and federal elected officials to secure available public financing for homelessness efforts.

Carter also took issue with local government decision-makers not moving more quickly in treating people living on the streets, especially those suffering from mental disabilities.

He was particularly critical of official resistance to sheltering and treating homeless people with severe mental illnesses at the 114-acre state facility in Costa Mesa called Fairview Developmental Center, where buildings are largely unused.

Carter said he was “tired” of being “misled” and lied to about Fairview.

If not Fairview or someplace else, Carter told officials a mental illness treatment shelter could end up in Laguna Niguel, on the parking lot of the Chet Holifield Federal Building.

The judge said he’s been asked to put a shelter there. “Because that’s federal property, I don’t have to wait for the city,” the judge said.

Mentally ill people need different facilities from a typical homeless shelter, he said.

“You got 10 percent of our [homeless] populations who are so mentally infirm, you can’t deal with them,” Carter said. “They’re the lady who eats the pebbles…we can’t put those people in the [existing] shelter.”

Police chiefs have told Carter violence in cities would fall if the 10 percent of homeless people with severe mental illnesses were off the streets, the judge said.

Pointing to the existing facilities at the state-owned Fairview property – including kitchens, medical facilities, and housing – the judge expressed frustration “at being misled” with reasons why Fairview supposedly wouldn’t work.

“Somebody’s lying to me [about Fairview]. Now that’s outrageous,” Carter said.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” retired OC Superior Court Chief Judge James L. Smith, who has been assisting Carter as his surrogate, said of Fairview. “It’s a gift from heaven, or someplace.”

“If you can produce a better system, I have no problem with Fairview [being used for other purposes]. You can sell it,” Carter said, noting existing proposals to develop it into market-rate housing. “But I don’t want to wait for the California Assembly on this.”

The judge asked officials to immediately call Gov. Gavin Newsom, who oversees the state agencies that own and operate Fairview.

“In fact, why doesn’t someone get on the phone right now and see if Gavin will talk to us,” Carter asked the roomful of elected officials. “Anybody got a phone? I’m challenging you.” Officials later told Carter the governor was out of the country in El Salvador.

‘Moving at a Glacial Pace’

In the wide-ranging 3.5-hour meeting, Carter praised officials for their “tremendous” homelessness efforts over the last year, while saying much more work remains.

“We’re moving at a glacial pace,” Carter said, mixing praise with pressure to move more quickly. “I’ve been slow-walked by more people than you can imagine,” the judge later said.

‘Hundreds of Millions of Dollars’ Left On the Table

Carter questioned why OC is far behind other counties in applying for millions in state dollars, particularly No Place Like Home grants that fund permanent supportive housing for homeless people with serious mental illnesses.

“This county has walked away from hundreds of millions of dollars,” Carter said.

Orange County recently applied for $13 million in No Place Like Home grants, compared with $125 million requested by San Diego County, which has fewer homeless people on the streets, according to official counts.

Homeless Deaths Under Federal Court Scrutiny

Throughout Tuesday’s hearing, Carter brought up the roughly 250 homeless people known to have died in Orange County last year – a number he and others have said is likely an undercount. The true number could be “close to 400” people who died last year, the judge said.

San Diego County, which has a similar overall population size to Orange County, had about 100 homeless deaths last year, Carter said. “We have 255 deaths in Orange County. Something’s wrong,” the judge said.

Father Dennis Kriz, a Catholic priest at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton, wrote opinion articles published by Voice of OC, detailing homeless deaths over 2018 and naming those who passed away. His posts caught Carter’s eye, who cited them in an emergency court request in February to Sheriff-Coroner Don Barnes for homeless death data.

Carter called Kriz up to the podium to thank him and hear out his concerns, including what happens to the 40-plus percent of homeless people for whom there would not be shelter beds if cities comply with Carter’s bed threshold.

“Obviously I read your comments in the Voice of Orange County,” Carter told Kriz. “I’m going to ask you to stay involved…I’ve never met you before. This is the first time…Your advocacy is appreciated, because it keeps me on my toes…The deaths are too many.”

Regarding his call for a mental health treatment shelter, Carter told Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) and Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana): “I’ll just lean on both of you and be patient a little while longer. But when I’m dealing with [homeless] death, that’s a little different.”

$140 Million for Homeless Health Care Being Pursued

Under pressure from Carter, officials at the public health plan CalOptima agreed to pursue investing $140 million for homeless health care services, which studies have shown reduces taxpayers’ overall costs due to fewer emergency room visits.

The agency is creating medical street teams to bring health care to homeless people at parks, shelters, and encampments. The goal is to deploy the first teams sometime this month, CalOptima CEO Michael Schrader said Tuesday.

The move was largely spurred by Carter’s meetings with top executives from the agency.

“We had a series of many good meetings,” Carter said. “Hard fought and there were disagreements.”

CalOptima first moved to create the teams at a Feb. 22 emergency meeting and expedited the process at a March 7 meeting, when Supervisor Andrew Do heavily criticized the slow process. Do also sits on the CalOptima board.

CalOptima officials had previously agreed to adding a total of $100 million for homeless health programs, though Carter pressed them Tuesday to add the $100 million to a previous $40 million they committed.

At first, CalOptima Chairman Paul Yost told Carter the board would decide Thursday on approving $100 million. Carter then interjected.

“Actually $140 million,” the judge said. CalOptima officials were hesitant at first to agree, but CEO Michael Schrader said he would recommend or request the full $140 million to the CalOptima board.

“These folks are CalOptima to begin with,” Carter said, referring to CalOptima being responsible for health care for low-income and disabled people in Orange County.

Timeline for New 600-Bed Santa Ana Shelter Moved Up

County and Santa Ana officials told Carter they planned to open a new 600-bed shelter on Yale St., a year from now. But the judge wanted a faster timeline, expressing concern about winter rains and cold he and health experts say are deadly for homeless people.

“This bickering back and forth between Santa Ana and the county has to stop,” Carter told officials who described a potential slowdown to opening a new shelter. “Stop this bickering. People are losing lives because of it.”

“Call me any time. I don’t sleep,” Carter told the officials.

Carter noted Santa Ana was able to open a new 200-bed shelter, The Link, in 28 days last year, and asked if the Yale shelter could be done in two months.

Back-and-forth negotiations with the judge then ensued in open court, and privately between city and county officials. Officials ultimately agreed to have the new shelter open by Thanksgiving, which Carter accepted.

Santa Ana officials stepped up to open the Link shelter despite being a poorer city than others in OC, city officials said Tuesday, in an apparent message to their colleagues in other parts of the county.

“We are not a rich city. We don’t have a lot of money. But the…Santa Ana City Council took the brave step to go forward, find money, so we could take people off the street. Because everybody deserves a chance,” Santa Ana Deputy Police Chief Ken Gominsky told Carter and the other officials at the hearing.

About 20 homeless children spend the night there each night, among about 160 people total on average with a separate area for families and children, he said.

The shelter cost Santa Ana “over a million dollars. But we found a way to make it happen,” Gominsky said.

Railroads Under Scrutiny

In hearings last year, Carter repeatedly expressed frustration at private railroads – which are federally-subsidized – not helping clean up the areas around urban tracks where encampments and trash gather.

Santa Ana officials, building on Carter’s frustrations, announced Tuesday they would be taking legal action against railroads, beginning with code enforcement actions already underway, and invited other cities to join the legal action.

“It remains unfair that federally-subsidized railroads, making millions of dollars, can’t find the [money] or energy to address” their problems that are negatively impacting local communities, Gominsky said.

A separate class-action lawsuit against railroads will be filed by private property owners in north Orange County, said Bill Taormina, a well-known Anaheim businessman and property owner.

Carter noted one of the major railroads through Orange County, the BNSF Railway Company, is owned by billionaire Warren Buffet, and suggested the county or others could reach out to Buffett.

Shelters Opening in Costa Mesa, Tustin, Buena Park, and Placentia

In response the homelessness lawsuits, city officials gave updates in court Tuesday on new shelters in their communities.

Tustin opened a 50-bed shelter about two weeks ago, and Costa Mesa will open a 50-bed shelter Friday, officials said. Buena Park and Placentia are planning to each open 100-bed shelters, as part of a collaboration among cities in north Orange County to avoid being added to a civil rights lawsuit.

Anaheim has 326 shelter beds at two separate shelters that have opened since the beginning of the year. And Santa Ana was the first to open a city-run shelter in November when it unveiled its 200-bed shelter known as The Link.

But Carter wanted to know what’s next and said he doesn’t want the shelters to become a permanent home for people.

Where Do People Go After Shelters?

Carter pressed the County for plans following the shelters, like permanent supportive housing, which provides medical treatment, mental health services, job training, and other services.

The shelters can’t become “permanent,” Carter said. “It has to flow through.”

Dan Young, a former mayor of Santa Ana and Irvine Company executive who’s been very involved with homeless housing efforts, stepped in to tell Carter about a regional body recently formed, the Orange County Housing Trust Fund, he said will build at least 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing and some affordable housing.

The trust will help with gap funding, so any housing projects that fall short of the needed funds can apply for it, so long as the project is in a member city.

“It doesn’t take much gap money … now we know how to do it, we have a forum to do it … it’s a collaboration, it doesn’t cost you anything,” said Young.

Meanwhile, county officials – through contracted service providers – say many homeless people have been moving into housing.

According to county data provided March 22, a total of 249 homeless people have moved to housing since the beginning of 2018 from county-run shelters like Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim and the Courtyard in Santa Ana. A large majority of that housing is permanent supportive housing, according county officials.

During that time frame, the average wait times for people to get into housing is usually three to nine months long, according to county data.

‘Warehousing’ Homeless People

Carter said without housing for people in shelters to eventually go to, homeless people would essentially be warehoused.

“Folks, these shelters cannot become permanent residences down in your communities,” Carter said. “We’ve got plenty of money – we just need to connect the dots.”

Some people sleeping at county-run shelters agree with the judge’s assessment.

Callie Rutter, a 55-year old from Costa Mesa who’s lived in Orange County most of her life, said in a Monday interview she became homeless in August after losing her office management job and that she’s been trying to get into housing ever since. Although she works various temporary jobs, Rutter said she still doesn’t make enough to rent a room from somebody or constantly stay in motels.

“The warehousing is unbelievable,” she said. “What about an exit plan? Is there any kind of exit plan?”

“I definitely feel broke, I feel like this has broken me. I have to survive it – there is no other option. I just want a permanent job and they won’t let me use this as an address,” Rutter said of the Kraemer shelter. “I used to feel so good about myself, I used to look so pretty, and now I just feel like the ugliest thing on the planet…When I go to work I feel good.”

A little over 3,300 people have slept at the county-run shelters since the beginning of 2018, including the cold-season Fullerton and Santa Ana armory shelters, according to the county.

At the shelters, “people sit around and talk about the good ole days because that’s all that’s left that they have to hang on to. There’s nothing to look forward to because innately they know there’s no exit plan,” Rutter said.

The federally-mandated Point in Time count in January found about 3,400 people sleeping on the streets of Orange County. But those numbers are preliminary and the initial count didn’t include people sleeping in shelters. The data is being combed through for duplicate headcounts and is expected to be released sometime this month.

Anti-Camping Enforcement Requires Available Shelter, Court Says

Throughout Tuesday’s court meeting, Carter described his authority as “a negative power” to issue court orders blocking anti-camping enforcement.

The judge has said he instead wants to see collaboration and solutions.

Carter has said he’s deriving his authority from last year’s U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Martin v. City of Boise, which found it’s unconstitutional to punish homeless people for camping outside unless adequate shelter is available as an alternative.

“These are decent laws…those are good laws,” Carter told police chiefs, referring to anti-camping laws. The court is okay with them “as long as we’re not incarcerating” homeless people for being homeless, Carter said Tuesday.

The homeless population is diverse and can’t be defined simply as criminals, the judge said.

“Yes there are criminals out there. But this is a cross-section of America,” Carter said, showing a picture of a young girl he said was homeless.

“For every criminal you throw at me, I’m going to show you a little girl living in a box on the railroad tracks.”

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