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After four years in operation, Orange County has quietly shut down its only low barrier walk-in shelter without any public announcement.

The closure last Friday of the Courtyard shelter in downtown Santa Ana – which once was home to over 400 homeless people – comes as the county opens a new, more restrictive shelter in a different part of the city.

The replacement Yale shelter offers more services for homeless people but has more limits on who is eligible – requiring a referral from police or health workers – and does not allow residents to walk in or out.

That’s prompting concerns that the closure is pushing people back to nearby streets – as well as frustration from local officials about why county officials like Supervisors Chairman Supervisor Andrew Do – who also represents Santa Ana – didn’t reach out to them with a plan.

When it was abruptly opened in 2016, just ahead of a tight election for Do, the Courtyard Transition Center – a converted abandoned bus terminal – was hailed as a groundbreaking transition center that would help the most challenged homeless get a respite from the streets.

It also immediately provided relief to nearby business owners, community centers and the Santa Ana Public Library which were overrun with homeless encampments. Even the county Civic Center itself became a tent city before the transition center opened. 

When it opened, Do said the center would address “the root causes of homelessness,” adding it would also provide “a warm bed and a hot meal for hundreds of people that have nowhere else to go.”

Over time, the transition center effectively became a homeless shelter that was eventually targeted by a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment by staff.

For years, county officials have hinted they would close the Courtyard when they eventually opened the new Yale shelter, yet there was no public announcement it was closing.

The Courtyard, a former homeless shelter in Santa Ana, on Feb. 24, 2020, five days after it closed. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Santa Ana councilman who represents the area around the shelter says he was never told it had closed until a Voice of OC reporter contacted him Wednesday morning.

“Unfortunately this is news to me,” said Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who took office in December.

“I’ve heard nothing. And it’s really unfortunate because we need to really bridge that relationship and work together. It’s very minimal,” he added.

“Before I was a council member I worked in re-entry and gang prevention. I worked closely with the Courtyard, I had a lot of folks placed there who were in need of emergency shelter as they were in transition to more stable housing.”

Do didn’t return messages for comment on the Courtyard closure, including about the county’s outreach to city and school officials about it.

“We were not notified – that I’m aware of, we were not notified. And I verified with the superintendent,” said Valerie Amezcua, an elected school board member at the Santa Ana Unified School District, which runs an elementary and high school a few blocks down the street from the Courtyard.

“I believe that the school district as a whole should be notified in any of these matters due to the fact we have school sites throughout the city. And it’s important to keep the parents and the community informed about this,” she added.

Asked what kind of outreach about the closure they did to Santa Ana city and school officials, county officials responded that they held a forum about a year and a half ago.

“The County of Orange completed outreach to the City of Santa Ana and surrounding community of the Yale Navigation Center by holding an information session in October of 2019,” said Jason Austin, who leads county homeless services as the county’s director of care coordination, in a written response to questions from Voice of OC.

“During the information session, community members had the opportunity to engage with County staff to ask questions and voice their concerns. There were also several outreach meetings with local business owners over the last year prior to Yale opening,” he added.

Among people staying at the Courtyard, 14 did not meet the eligibility criteria for the Yale shelter, Austin said.

Of the 135 people staying at the Courtyard when it was ramping down to close, only 7 left without going to another shelter or reuniting with family, and 103 went to Yale, he added.

As the county has been closing the Courtyard, a homeless encampment has been growing at the nearby parking lot of a well-known community center, El Centro Cultural de México, all but shutting down its operations.

“There’s an encampment now at El Centro and it’s grown bigger over time,” said Ben Vazquez, El Centro’s board chair.

“And they closed down [the Courtyard shelter] because they said ‘We have Yale’ – and they [had to lower] the capacity [because of the pandemic] but why not have both open while it’s open? Like, why not?”

Now, he said, the cultural center is trying to connect people in its parking lot with services and housing.

“All the services are here in Santa Ana…they got nowhere to go but here,” Vazquez said.

“If we kick them out of El Centro, then they’re going to go to somebody else’s yard.”

Santa Ana’s city manager said the county did tell city staff they planned to close the Courtyard, though she said concerns remain about whether people who were staying at the former shelter are being left behind by Yale’s eligibility requirements and movement restrictions.

“We still battle with the concentration of services here, that do result in a lot more homeless on our streets than any other city in Orange County,” Ridge said, adding that the Courtyard “was probably the lowest barrier shelter in existence in the county.”

“We know from all of the outreach that we’ve done, that there is a large percentage of service-resistant [homeless people] and in a traditional shelter model [like Yale], they’re not gonna go.”

The city is currently suing the county, saying there’s an ongoing practice of sheriff deputies writing up homeless people in other parts of the county for minor citations, transporting them to the county jail booking in downtown Santa Ana, and then immediately releasing them to the city’s streets.

In its court response, the county said such actions – if they did take place – would not violate its settlement agreement with the city, and that the city didn’t provide facts supporting its claims.

At the same time, Ridge said she’s happy to see homeless people are being offered “a better level of services [at Yale] than were offered at Courtyard.”

Advocates say the county now has now further restricted access to shelters.

“Closing the last walk in shelter the county had does create a problem,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents OC homeless people in federal civil rights lawsuits.

“I do not know of anywhere else in the country that restricts people from walking and biking in and out of the congregate shelter they are asked to call home.”

“There is now no shelter you can access without a referral,” she added.

The only exception is the county’s cold-season armory shelters, which are overnight only and if people miss the single daily bus trip, they can’t get in, Weitzman said.

It comes amid a shutdown, during the county chairmanship of Andrew Do, of many of the types of news announcements the county previously would make – including weekly coronavirus news conferences.

Rather than announce the Courtyard closure through a press release or news conference, county officials hinted at it indirectly within a quarterly homelessness update PDF distributed only to people who had signed up for a mailing list to receive the updates.

The Yale Shelter “incorporates the services previously delivered by the Midnight Mission at the Courtyard,” the report says.

That brief mention is the closest the document gets to noting the Courtyard has closed.

Santa Ana officials like Amezcua say the county needs to do a better job of communicating.

“Being homeless is not a crime, but there are areas we need to monitor,” Amezcua said.

“The bottom line is: communication is key to everything.”

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

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