Santa Ana officials and residents publicly pushed back Tuesday as Orange County supervisors approved contracts to move a homeless shelter from downtown to an industrial area of the city half a mile from schools.
Much of the frustration was over supervisors putting the new 425-bed Yale shelter in Santa Ana, a low-income city that long has hosted more shelter beds than any other Orange County city, while wealthier south county cities have refused to open a shelter.
Last year, supervisors proposed a shelter on vacant 100-acre property near the Great Park in Irvine, but backed off after thousands of residents came to the supervisors’ meeting to raise concerns about how it would affect children.
“I often question your motives of why you are persistent in placing the shelter in Santa Ana. Is it because you all believe Latinos are less worthy of a good quality of life?” Santa Ana Councilwoman Ceci Iglesias publicly questioned county supervisors before their vote Tuesday.
“Are you all taking advantage of the fact that many of our residents – Latino residents – are not able to attend these meetings because we have to work two to three jobs to make ends meet?” she added.
Unlike other types of public meetings, county supervisors hold their meetings are during normal business hours on a weekday.
“Looking at it, placing the shelter in Santa Ana leads me to believe that you all don’t care about the Latino community and that you consider us second-class citizens,” Iglesias said.
Iglesias was joined by 13 other Santa Ana residents and business owners who raised concerns about the project and questioned a lack of outreach and answers from the county.
“Why are we not building shelters in San Clemente and Mission Viejo? I think we know why,” said Danny Vega, a Santa Ana resident who wrote a petition against the Yale shelter that’s generated over 350 signatures.
“Is our safety not as important as the safety of the cities in South County? Are our families not as important as the families in South County? Is my family not as important as a family in the South County cities? Enough is enough.”
Supervisor Andrew Do, who represents Santa Ana on the Board of Supervisors, acknowledged the city has “has borne the brunt” of homeless services for years. But he said the Yale site was chosen by the city itself, after city officials said they wanted the existing downtown shelter moved somewhere else.
“This area is in the middle of an industrial zone,” Do said. “We are acting, really, at the suggestion of the city and the leadership of the city. And we’re doing everything we can in order to protect the neighborhood and the residents of Santa Ana.”
Regarding outreach, Do said he’s been holding coffee meetings in the community and talks about the proposed shelter at each one. And he emphasized the Yale shelter would replace a shelter with a similar capacity that already exists in Santa Ana, not simply add a new one.
Still, commenters said the county breached trust by not reaching out to school district officials about their safety plans for the shelter. About a half mile from the shelter site are an elementary school – Kenneth E. Mitchell School – and Godinez Fundamental High School.
The public comments didn’t sway county supervisors, who on Tuesday authorized $25 million for construction of the new Yale shelter over a year-long period ending in early 2021. The 425-bed facility would replace the existing Courtyard shelter in Downtown Santa Ana, where about 400 people sleep on any given night.
County officials have not yet disclosed key details of how the Yale shelter will run – like where pick-up and drop-off locations will be – and supervisors aren’t scheduled to vote on an operational plan until January.
A county spokeswoman declined in recent days to say whether homeless people will be able to walk out of the facility, though Do said Tuesday that “there is no walk in and out.” Homeless people will only be able to go to the shelter if they’re referred by Santa Ana police or a health worker, he said.
Still, Santa Ana residents and officials said the county has not been treating them as equals.
“Not one person has said to us, as a [school] board, or to our superintendent…nobody has come and said ‘Can we have a conversation with you?’ ‘Can we have community meetings?’ ” said Valerie Amezcua, the president of Santa Ana Unified School District’s board.
“Coming to the community first and foremost – before we lay out a project – is critical. Because it is about relationships,” Amezcua said. “We can help you. But instead, we have been put in a corner as if our children do not matter. Our children are just as important in our community as South County.”
“Being homeless is not a crime. Truly it is not,” she added. “It is very sad that we have so many people living on our streets. However, we are not the dumping ground.”
Santa Ana residents also raised concerns about the county’s continuing practice of releasing all jail inmates in Santa Ana regardless of where they were arrested.
While the county has jails in Irvine and Orange, inmates held there are transported to Santa Ana for release, sometimes in the middle of the night.
“It’s not appropriate for someone to be relocated from South County because they have an infraction and they may be homeless and be released onto our streets here in Santa Ana,” said Tim Johnson, a Santa Ana resident.
The $25 million construction plan for the Yale Shelter was approved by supervisors 4-to-1, with Santa Ana’s representative, Do, voting in favor.
The one no vote was from Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who represents South County. She wanted the proposed shelter in Santa Ana to accept homeless people from across the county, not just Santa Ana and other central cities.
“The county funds used towards [the shelter] were paid for by all of the taxpayers of Orange County,” Bartlett said.
Vega, the petition organizer, warned supervisors residents were ready to hold supervisors accountable.
“The days of staying silent are done. The days of misinformation are gone. And the day of Santa Ana residents voicing their concerns [has] arrived,” Vega said.
“I promise you a lot of Santa Ana residents are watching and listening, and we are ready to vote,” he added.
“As god is my witness, I will make sure this [meeting’s] video will be shared across social media and everybody will see how you guys voted with this. Do not underestimate a community who has been pushed too far.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.