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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This week, Orange County’s homelessness efforts will get graded in federal court.

Just about every public official in Orange County has been asked to visit on Tuesday with Federal District Judge David O. Carter as he checks in on the County of Orange and local cities to gauge progress on homelessness in an ongoing civil rights lawsuit he presides over.

In recent talks with activists and program providers, many acknowledge there has been progress over the last year.

Progress we haven’t seen in a decade.

Yet I doubt we’ll make the honor roll.

County officials landed in federal court last year after attempting a badly-planned riverbed eviction of homeless encampments without having established any kind of functioning shelter system.

The effort worked out nicely for local politicians – who were able to tell the public they were doing something.

Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray ran her county supervisor’s campaign largely on the effort as did former Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose characterization of the evictions certainly helped his successful run for DA last November.

It didn’t work out that well for homeless people, who got scattered all over the county, making it tougher for social service and mental health care case workers to actually find, assess and help people. Local residents, like people living near Maxwell Park in Anaheim, also got a wave of homeless people back at local parks and libraries.

Public law advocates, Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, went to bat for the homeless in court and filed a civil rights lawsuit, finding a receptive federal judge in Carter who was willing to put the county’s anti-camping ordinances to the constitutional test.

Recent court cases have established that local police departments can’t arrest people for camping outside if there are no shelter beds locally available.

The resulting collision has forced county leaders to establish what they have adeptly avoided over the past decade: a system of care for the most vulnerable.

County supervisors’ glaring lack of action over the last decade has put every city in Orange County at risk of being unable to enforce their anti-camping ordinances on impromptu homeless encampments.

That has prompted some city leaders and county supervisors to privately direct their ire at Carter, raising objections about what they see as forced land-use planning from the federal dais.

Yet the ire should be directed at county supervisors.

Only after they landed in federal court – where they must act to avoid putting Carter in the position of voiding local anti-camping ordinances because they are unconstitutional without a basic shelter system – have county supervisors moved to plant the seeds of a basic system of homelessness sheltering and care.

And even then, despite hundreds of homeless deaths each year, supervisors’ response has been slow.

To his credit, Supervisor Andrew Do has publicly stepped up – in federal court last year and most recently at CalOptima – to question, even himself, on the speed of our public bureaucracy to respond to the human crisis unfolding on our local streets, parks and libraries.

Supervisors are stuck on shelters when they should be focused on housing.

This past month, an ACLU report painted a scathing picture of conditions at overcrowded county shelter facilities, which have become packed as supervisors move slowly to establish temporary and permanent supportive housing options.

In stark contrast, city leaders – particularly elected officials and city managers across North County, Costa Mesa and Tustin – have begun to step up in terms of leadership.

A coalition of 13 cities in North County have worked together through their city managers to get shelters constructed in Buena Park and Placentia with neighboring cities contributing funds to the effort.

County officials are also helping with $1.2 million of the $3 million effort to construct shelters.

City leaders in Tustin and Costa Mesa are also moving forward with their own efforts to build shelters.

These efforts also stand in contrast to a host of South Orange County cities, which have failed to propose any shelter options of their own.

To date, Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett hasn’t seemingly been able – as the region’s senior political leader – to get much going in terms of shelters in South County, which is admittedly no easy task.

South County residents don’t trust government to balance their quality of life with homelessness response efforts and generally oppose shelters.

Newly elected Supervisor Don Wagner – who led efforts as Irvine Mayor to oppose county homeless sheltering at the 100-acre site near the Great Park – does seem to want to find a workable approach, telling me recently during our On OC podcast that he favors fashioning something similar to what North County is doing by getting cities to contribute together as a region on sheltering.

So what might Carter do?

Well, more than 100 open acres of county land in Irvine – largely conveyed to the county from the Navy for homelessness programs – continues to sit empty.

Given the inaction from South County, how long before Carter demands action on the county parcel?

He has talked in the past about small structure sites, like containers, as an option.

Some public municipalities operate low cost mobile home parks as nonprofits on public land – as a quick way to offer affordable, stable housing.

Nearby in Costa Mesa, the state has another 100 acres of land already zoned as an institutional mental health facility at the Fairview Developmental Center that is being shut down.

Carter could ask that existing efforts to transfer the land into local hands be accelerated.

The United Way also recently launched a pilot program whereby local apartment owners could work with Section 8 housing vouchers to get people quickly housed in supportive environments.

Former Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait had talked about the need to establish work programs for homeless by working with temp agencies to hire people on basic jobs.

CalOptima, the county’s health program for low income and elderly residents, also is among the groups invited to meet with Carter Tuesday. After CalOptima officials met with the judge earlier this year, officials began work on creating medical teams to treat those who live on the streets as well as providing recuperative housing.

Carter could put these kinds of programs on steroids.

Just between these basic options, Carter could quickly spur efforts to establish the housing needed to cure the backlog that is causing such suffering in the few basic county shelters – like the Courtyard Transition Center in Santa Ana and Kraemer Place on the Anaheim/Orange border – that are badly overcrowded.

County leaders have put some of the basic blocks in place to create permanent supportive housing and local civic leaders with the Association of California Cities, Orange County did help get a housing trust authorized.

But that will take time.

There has to be a plan for housing in the interim.

Again, think wildfire response.

You don’t let things keep burning while you plan to build better fire engines.

Most importantly, Carter could challenge county officials to actually start doing work themselves – such as really engaging the $6 billion bureaucracy taxpayers have built as opposed to their current strategy of relying on a few, overwhelmed and under-funded, well-intentioned nonprofits to carry the main load of the county’s homelessness responsibilities.

According to the last homelessness county in Orange County, there’s just over about 3,000 homeless people in a county of three million.

That’s hardly an outside invasion. Or a number that can’t be handled by the army of well-compensated elected officials and public executives our taxes employ.

Yet last year, about five percent of our homeless died on our streets.

It’s about 20 people a month.

That sad fact moved Father Dennis Kriz to pen an Oped last Christmas asking us all to remember those who we failed as a society.

We know that Kriz reached Carter, who cited Kriz’ Op-ed in a federal filing earlier this year where he declared a public emergency.

This coming week, Carter himself takes up the challenge of reaching our elected officials and ultimately inspiring them to action.

People, each one of us, can make a difference here.

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