OC’s Shelter Capacity is Shrinking, For Now, Amid Scramble to Expand in Crisis

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana National Guard armory overnight homeless shelter on July 15, 2018, when it closed its doors for the season.

At a time jurisdictions up and down the state are expanding emergency homeless shelters to slow the spread of coronavirus and save lives, two of Orange County’s main shelters are being downsized with replacement shelters that have 200 fewer beds in total.

The two county shelters at National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana – which have 400 beds total – are closing down and being replaced no later than Tuesday with two shelters that have 200 beds total. The replacement shelters are at Independence Park Gymnasium in Fullerton and the Salvation Army store and donation center in Santa Ana.

County officials also announced plans to open a former youth camp in the Santa Ana Mountains as a shelter for homeless people who don’t have symptoms but are at higher risk if they get infected – particularly seniors and people with compromised immune systems.

The plans to re-open Joplin Youth Center, near Trabuco Canyon, were still in early stages. As of late Monday morning, officials did not have an opening day or answers about the availability of medical services and ways for people to communicate if there is limited cell phone service at the mountain camp.

As recently as last week, county officials apparently were not prepared with a backup plan for the shelters if the National Guard took back their armories during an emergency.

And the county’s emergency plan, which was updated last year, had a section on pandemics but did not describe any plans for how to slow the spread of a disease among homeless people, whom the plan noted are at higher risk of getting infected.

One of the reasons the armory shelter beds are being reduced is to space them out to follow state health recommendations to prevent coronavirus’ spread, county officials said in an emailed response to questions. The county’s responses Sunday and Monday were provided by Carrie Braun, the Sheriff’s Department’s lead spokeswoman, who has been among the officials handling media responses in recent days at the county Emergency Operations Center.

Also in the background, with no clear opening date, is the possibility of motels opening up as homeless shelter in Orange County, pursuant to a statewide request by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

County officials have said they’re pursuing leases with motels in OC in preparation for sheltering homeless people who are diagnosed with COVID-19.

Dozens of motels and hotels line Harbor Blvd. in Orange County, with many have large vacancies amid steep declines in occupancy over the closure of Disneyland and other tourism travel.

Meanwhile, amid questions about money for new shelters and deep concerns among medical officials about shortages of protective equipment at hospitals, county officials did not have answers Monday about how much money and supplies they’re requesting from state and federal officials and the private sector. There were indications the county’s requests were spread among multiple documents rather than in one place.

Orange County and other jurisdictions across the U.S. are preparing for a wave of coronavirus cases that experts say would likely overwhelm local hospitals if preventative measures aren’t taken, like social distancing among non-essential workers and providing shelter for homeless people with appropriate separation between beds.

Separating people diagnosed with coronavirus from the general population – known as isolation – is considered by health experts to be a critical way of reducing the spread of infections among the public, including essential workers like first responders.

While millions of Orange County residents hunker down at home to slow the spread of coronavirus, homeless people don’t have that option. Nearly 7,000 homeless people were counted in Orange County last year, and the number of shelter beds in OC is far lower than the number of homeless people.

Homeless people generally are more elderly than the overall population and have been sheltered by the hundreds in dense spaces in Orange County. That proximity and older age creates a higher risk of coronavirus spreading if it were to make it into a shelter – and of homeless people dying from it.

Placentia Shelter Opening Delayed Amid Confusion About Essential Work

Just a few weeks ago, Placentia officials were planning on opening a 100-bed shelter in their city on March 19 – a day that came and went without it opening.

Work was halted amid confusion about whether it was illegal for them to construction workers to keep working, amid orders banning any work not deemed essential, said Councilman Chad Wanke.

“We had some wrap-up construction work that needed to be done, and there was confusion about whether every construction trade” was included as essential, Wanke said in an interview Monday.

“Anecdotal word” was spreading that construction workers were stopped by police and told their work was not essential and if the workers were stopped on the road again they would be issued a ticket, Wanke said.

It was anecdotal, “but that was going around,” he said, adding that the confusion has largely been cleared up.

“We’re starting to get more clarify from the governor’s office and the county, and that should help us to move forward,” Wanke said. “We’re working to get it open as quickly as we can.”

County’s Emergency Plan for Pandemics Does Not Have Plan for Homeless

The county’s disaster preparedness plan, which is 250 pages long, has sections on pandemics and major disease outbreaks, but does not include a plan for how to reduce health risks to homeless people.

County officials did not have answers Monday morning about whether they have a written plan to reduce health risks to homeless people during a pandemic.

The Orange County Grand Jury, in a report last year, raised concerns about the county lacking clear written plans for communicating with the public during emergencies.

“The lack of a standardized written protocol for Alerts and Warnings decreases the ability of the County and its Operational Area jurisdictions to speak with one voice when it comes to alerting the public during emergencies,” the grand jury wrote in their June report.

In its official response last July, the Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the county Emergency Operations Center, said it “partially agrees,” adding it was working on creating an alert and warning plan.

The grand jury also raised concerns about a lack of clear roles for officials tasked with providing information to the public during the Canyon 2 fire in 2018.

“Some emergency management personnel, tasked with creating and disseminating Emergency Public Information, in a rapidly-evolving, multijurisdictional emergency did not fully understand their roles and responsibilities,” the grand jury wrote.

The Sheriff’s Department disagreed with the finding, saying its public information officers “worked to resolve the inevitable information issues that arise during any emergency event.”