Three weeks after the state called for thousands of new motel shelter beds in OC to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Orange County’s shelter capacity apparently has gone in the other direction – down – as the county struggles to quickly get beds online.


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Homeless people are at heightened risk for getting COVID and dying from it, which officials privately say could have devastating effects across the county, including further overall spread of the virus.

As of the last count, there were 4,000 unsheltered homeless people in Orange County, with existing shelters at or near full. In recent days, homeless people on the streets have said they’re trying to find shelter with social distancing so they can prevent getting COVID and spreading it.

Providing homeless shelter for people on the streets, with distancing between beds and isolation of people who are sick, is one of the key approaches urged by state and federal health officials for preventing COVID’s spread.

Three weeks ago, state officials called for 2,300 additional beds in OC, with social distancing, to prevent a spread of the virus that is believed to be especially deadly to homeless people – who generally are more elderly and medically frail than the general population. 

Orange County now appears to be further from that goal than when it was first set out. Officials initially had no backup plan when 400 county shelter beds at National Guard armories were about to be taken offline, and the replacement shelters have a total of 200 beds – a reduction of 200 beds overall. A new shelter opened this week in Placentia adds an estimated 100 beds, for a total reduction of 100 beds countywide.

County officials have been pursing about 1,000 new beds in Orange County – across a former youth camp, motels, and emergency structures on parking lots – and many of the beds remain weeks away from being online.

Among the challenges in getting the motels up and running is the county, which historically did not notify cities about plans for new shelters, is getting blowback from cities on motel shelter efforts.

In particular, Laguna Woods officials have publicly raised concerns about county efforts to shelter homeless people who have COVID symptoms at Ayers Hotel in their city.

“The City is deeply concerned with the County of Orange’s unilateral decision to place individuals afflicted with COVID‐19 right in the middle of the most concentrated community of older adults in Orange County” said Laguna Woods Mayor Noel Hatch wrote in a news release.

And county officials have been publicly and privately focusing on whether they will get reimbursed by the state or federal government for the motel costs.

In particular, they’ve focused on the damage bills from the Baymont motel in Anaheim after county officials sheltered homeless people with mental illnesses there in 2018. In that case, the county hired a contractor to run the motel who had significant tension with the homeless residents.

The contractor the county has hired to run the upcoming shelter beds, Illumination Foundation, generally has a far better reputation among homeless people and advocates than the Baymont contractor.

“We basically had to write a big check with one of the motels that suffered greatly,” said OC Supervisor Bartlett at the March 24 supervisors’ meeting, when discussing the topic of motel sheltering for homeless COVID patients. Bartlett currently is the president of California’s statewide association of counties, commonly known as CSAC.

There have also been signs that some county officials believe the 2,300 bed goal is too much.

“They had given us an initial number of 2,300 – that is probably a little much,” said Matt Miller, the Orange County’s chief real estate officer, said last Thursday, March 26, at a special meeting of county supervisors.

The county was taking “directions” from the state regarding the motel shelters, he added.

“Originally the state was going to enter into these [motel lease] agreements, and they have now ordered us to do so,” Miller told supervisors at the time.

The virus is actively spreading in Orange County, according to county health officials, and is predicted to keep growing in the coming weeks, leading to thousands of deaths statewide and between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths nationally.

With tourism effectively vanishing, thousands of motel and hotel beds are vacant across the county.

County officials have said their goal is to open three new types of shelter, for three groups:

  • For homeless people with COVID symptoms, motel and hotel beds with support services at multiple properties leased by the county and funded by state,
  • For homeless people without symptoms but who are over 65 years old or vulnerable medically, the former Joplin Youth Center in the Santa Ana Mountains,
  • For homeless people on the street who do not have symptoms, additional shelters that may include large “Sprung” structures on the parking lots at county regional parks.

The county owns 100 acres of largely vacant land near the 5 freeway in Irvine, which the city and county previously agreed could be used for emergency shelter. Officials have not publicly mentioned the property as being under consideration for emergency COVID shelter.

Weeks ago, the state reportedly was moving to lease about 1,000 beds at Marriott hotel in Anaheim for emergency COVID shelter. Those efforts apparently were handed off to the county and officials so far have not announced they’ve finalized a lease for the beds.

More than $1 billion in additional funding is coming to Orange County governments under the new federal stimulus bill, if it’s proportionally distributed as the law calls for. Meanwhile, county officials have been looking to dip into restricted reserve funds for mental health and CalOptima health services.

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

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