OC Approves Millions for New Homeless Shelters, as Lawsuit Alleges Harassment at Existing Ones

Courtesy of Costa Mesa PIO

Construction underway at an upcoming emergency homeless shelter in Costa Mesa.

Millions of dollars are on their way to create new homeless shelters in Costa Mesa and Anaheim, on the heels of a lawsuit against Orange County officials alleging inhumane conditions at other existing facilities.

In a series of votes last week, the county Board of Supervisors authorized $2.5 million and $650,000, respectively, for new shelters in Costa Mesa and Anaheim, whose operators were not part of the lawsuit. All of the money comes from state grants, which the county has been much more active in seeking after being called out by a federal judge last year.

Supervisors also authorized county staff to seek about $32 million in state grants for 143 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people with serious mental illnesses, and authorized dedicated housing vouchers to create eight affordable apartments for homeless people within a larger development in Buena Park.

“I’ve always been an advocate for permanent supportive housing with wraparound services, because I think long term, in order to end homelessness in Orange County, that’s what it’s going to take” along with expanding mental health and other services, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told Voice of OC.

“We have to look at a lot of different options for addressing the needs of the homeless, but also making sure long-term that every homeless individual who wants to turn his or her life around has the opportunity to do so. And part of that is being able to get into long term housing with wraparound services.”

Yet homeless advocates say the county is focusing too much on shelters and not enough on reaching the county’s own goal of creating 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing for homeless people.

“We should no longer fund shelters that merely serve as warehouses – holding centers for those doomed to living on the street due to your lack of commitment to the housing to meet this very solvable challenge,” Pat Davis, an Anaheim resident and advocate, said in a public comment to supervisors that was read aloud last week.

“The county funds shelters, and considers successful, those providers that place merely 20% [of shelter residents] into housing. Such a low standard explains our disastrous shelter system.”

The county and several local cities have been setting up shelters that will allow them to legally disband homeless encampments, under settlement agreements from a 2018 federal lawsuit.

But a new lawsuit by civil rights activists claims that within existing shelters in Anaheim and Santa Ana, homeless women have faced sexual harassment, groping, and voyeurism by shelter staff – as well as overcrowding, filthy plumbing, rodent and bedbug infestations, showers in disrepair and extreme temperatures.

County officials note they’ll be changing one of their shelter operators in the coming weeks, as the Courtyard shelter in downtown Santa Ana moves to a new location on Yale Street. And they say shelters continue to be an important stepping stone to help homeless people transition into housing.

“The low barrier to entry shelters are probably some of the most challenging, not only for staff but also the homeless population. And that’s why it’s really important to start connecting the homeless individuals to services” like mental health, Bartlett said.

“I think long-term for our county, it serves as a critical component for our system of care that we need to build out,” she added.

The new shelter operator at Yale has a “better track record,” Bartlett said, adding “I think it will give us a much better chance of success.” The Los Angeles-based nonprofit group PATH, short for People Assisting The Homeless, will run the shelter.

Homeless advocates continue to press county officials to invest more in affordable housing, including by putting the county’s own dollars into it rather than solely relying on state and federal grants.

“I know affordable and safe homes save lives. In addition, they will save our county around $100,000 per homeless person per year, according to the UCI-United Way-Jamboree study,” Lisa Pedersen of Rancho Santa Margarita, said in comments that also were read aloud to supervisors last week.

“I urge you to put an end to policies that hurt our homeless brothers and sisters, and use the county money more wisely to reinvest in our schools…and create and grow more affordable housing so there are fewer deaths in our community.”

Advocates pointed to rising death counts of homeless people.

“Under the Board of Supervisors’ malicious neglect, 235 [homeless] people died without abode in 2018. In 2019, 244 died without abode. And in 2020, over 320 have died while suffering from all the aspects of abject poverty while trying to survive while living on the streets throughout Orange County,” David Duran, an Anaheim resident and advocate, said in comments read aloud to the supervisors.

“You are complicit with the deaths of over 779 infants, children, women and men who [have] succumbed to poverty, malicious and criminal neglect by the Board of Supervisors.”

County officials say they’re seeking all the funding they can to build affordable housing for homeless people, with on-site services.

“Every housing unit we can get online to help serve the homeless population is one less person on the street, so it’s a positive thing,” Bartlett said, adding she was happy the county got $23 million in state Project Homekey grants to provide housing for at least 132 homeless people.

“I’m really excited to get more and more of those units online,” she said.

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