Orange County Moves its Largest Homeless Shelter Starting Around the New Year

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A construction worker walks by the Yale homeless construction site on Nov. 13, 2020.

Orange County is getting ready to open a new, larger shelter in Santa Ana to replace its open-air bus terminal shelter in the city’s Civic Center.

The new 425-bed Yale Transitional Center will be about a half-mile south of Centennial Park, and is slated to open around the end of the year, with county contractors scheduled to transport residents there from the existing Courtyard shelter until sometime in January when the Courtyard closes.

Once that happens, the county will no longer run low-barrier shelters in central OC where homeless people can walk in and walk out.

The Los Angeles-based nonprofit group PATH is on track to operate the Yale shelter at a cost of $6.4 million per year, under a contract up for approval Tuesday by county supervisors.

Questions remain about how long people will stay at the shelter – amid concerns that it will be just another warehouse – while county officials say it will significantly help efforts to connect people to treatment and job services as well as longer-term housing.

“They’re staying longer at these shelters,” said Ceci Iglesias, a Republican former member of the Santa Ana City Council who represented the community around the Yale shelter.

“It’s going to be hard to find them a one-bedroom apartment. It’s very expensive to live here in Orange County,” she added.

“It’s no secret…that the only thing that solves homelessness is housing– that housing first is the most cost-effective and humane shelter,” said Brooke Weitzman, a leading attorney for homeless people in Orange County. “Congregate shelter is the most expensive and least effective.”

Three years ago, homeless people were sent back to the streets from a county shelter intended to help people transition to housing because homes weren’t available before they hit a 6-month limit to stay there.

But county officials say that’s changing, with about 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing now under construction or going through the funding process in Orange County. About 100 units have been built so far, and between 7,000 and 10,000 homeless people lived in Orange County as of the latest counts.

The Yale shelter will be a key part of helping homeless people connect to housing, said Jason Austin, who coordinates the county’s homeless services as director of care coordination.

“They will have substance abuse counselors on site, they’ll have clinicians on site working with people,” as well as help with finding jobs and a “real focus on housing,” Austin said in an interview Friday.

“We’re trying to build a system with flow. So shelters can definitely be a starting point for people, but we definitely do not want them to be a destination for permanence,” he added.

“We need more housing options and opportunities…we’re trying to build trust and connection to people, and helping them get off the streets initially, that’s the point of these shelters and housing…but the endgame is housing.”

JULIE LEOPO, Vice of OC

The county’s Courtyard homeless shelter in Santa Ana on June 23, 2020.

The environment will be much different at Yale than the existing Courtyard shelter, Austin said.

Where the Courtyard has hundreds of cots on the ground of a concrete bus terminal, county officials worked with architects to design Yale to provide a sense of personal space, including with furniture, he said.

As for the new shelter’s operator, Austin and Weitzman credited PATH’s staff as treating homeless people with dignity and respect, which they say helps with getting people back on their feet.

People would be eligible to stay at Yale if they’re experiencing homelessness in central OC cities known as the “central SPA,” if they’re referred by outreach workers, law enforcement or a hospital. There’s also a background check and people with outstanding warrants or sex offenses will not be allowed, according to the county.

Homeless people are not allowed to walk in or walk out of the shelter, and instead will be picked up and dropped off at locations that haven’t yet been determined, Austin said.

Santa Ana parents and officials have raised concerns that the Yale shelter will draw more homeless people to communities around the shelter.

At a meeting in January, three dozen people raised public concerns to county supervisors, pointing to the existing concentration of homeless services in the city and saying Santa Ana children already are already exposed to needles on the streets and drug use while walking to school, as well as naked people wandering onto school campuses.

In response, county officials say their policy against walk-ins and walk outs will prevent loitering around the shelter. Such an approach has led to no complaints or problems around the county’s Bridges at Kraemer shelter in Anaheim.

Even so, concerns remain about the shelter and the surrounding community.

“I think everybody still has concerns about having a 400-bed shelter in the neighborhood. I don’t think any city in Orange County would be happy with a 400-bed shelter right across from a school and in close proximity to a local park,” said Angie Cano, who represented the area on the Santa Ana Planning Commission as Iglesias’ appointee.

“We’re just kind of worried about [whether] the homeless population’s going to get worse in our area. Because it’s already pretty bad.”

Iglesias said a question is where the county will put the pick-up and drop-off locations, which haven’t yet been announced.

“My concern would be where is this drop off at. Is it in the city of Santa Ana, or is it somewhere else? If it’s in another city, I would say yes…they’re being good neighbors,” Iglesias told Voice of OC.

“If they drop them off, say, back in downtown, where are these individuals going to go? They’re going to [walk] around the streets,” she added.

“I’m hoping that [the county will be] good neighbors, and that they try to at least foster a good relationship with city officials and most importantly with the residents.”

At the January meeting, Supervisor Andrew Do sought to reassure residents that homeless people won’t be wandering in to the area.

“The new way that we operate the [Yale] shelter, we do not have people walk in and out or ride up [on] their bike,” Do said. “We will take steps to make sure that no one from outside of this area will be going there.”

Weitzman, the attorney for homeless people, has been saying for months that the county is in a unique opportunity to buy motels at a discount while they lay mostly empty during the pandemic, and turn them into housing for homeless people.

“We’re in this moment where the obvious solution is hotels and motels. We’re in an economic crisis for those motels and hotels,” she told Voice of OC last week. “We have existing infrastructure, and it’s already built for single-occupancy rooms, and already has the ability [for people] to cook and use bathrooms.”

OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who also leads California’s statewide association of counties, has been a big proponent of buying motels to create permanent supportive housing, if the state provides grants to pay for it.

The county applied for – and received – state grants to buy two motels in Stanton to convert them into housing for homeless people, which is now underway.

“The signficant majority of people need that safe place to stay with a door that locks, and maybe a little bit of help if they’ve been homeless for a long time,” Weitzman said.

Iglesias said it “would be a good social investment” to create affordable housing for homeless people, similar to housing that’s provided for two years for youth transitioning out of foster care and into adulthood.

She said she hopes people at the shelter are taught skills to live on their own, possible in shared housing that helps cut down on expenses.

There also are questions about where the housing will be that homeless people relocate to from Yale.

“If it’s a temporary shelter, where are they going to house them permanently? Is it going to be here in Santa Ana?” Iglesias asked. “I believe other cities should at least weigh in and provide that relief for the city of Santa Ana [and] provide permanent housing.”

The housing options at Yale will “include all available resources in Orange County, not just Santa Ana,” said Austin, the county’s homeless services coordinator.

At the same time, Iglesias wonders, “what do you do with those that don’t want the help?”

“There’s individuals out there that just don’t want to abide by the rules, they don’t want to be responsible to reporting to anyone. And I’ve seen that,” Iglesias said.

Residents of the Yale shelter will be required to follow the rules, and could be removed if they don’t, Austin said.

“Individuals need to follow rules for the site. Program staff will make every effort to engage and work with participants to both follow the rules of the site and engage in services,” he said in written responses to questions.

“Exiting from the program may be an eventual result, but our goal is to engage and link people to the services they need to be successful and housed,” said Austin. Shelter residents and staff are expected to follow a document called the Standards of Care that outlines their rights and responsibilities, he added.

Also, as part of the federal court settlement deals that led to the Yale shelter, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter has said cities and counties can have police evict homeless people from public areas if they refuse to go to adequate shelter.

Meanwhile, county officials say they’re continuing to make progress in creating options for people to get off the street, rebuild their lives and move into housing.

“We’re on the path. I think there’s a lot happening with the creation of more housing units, with the development of shelters and support services. And I think everybody understands a bit more about homelessness now than a few years ago,” said Austin.

As of the latest count, 345 people have moved to housing from the Bridges shelter in Anaheim during the 3.5 years since it opened.

“The end of homelessness is housing. And how we get there is through projects like Yale” and engaging people, Austin said. “We are definitely making some really amazing progress, in the middle of Covid by the way.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].