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Orange County supervisors gave themselves a rousing public applause this week for shutting down Santa Ana’s only walk-in homeless shelter.
Norberto Santana, Jr.
A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.
The shelter, which drew lawsuits over conditions, was quietly shut down in recent months, something that was only publicly acknowledged this week after media reports on the issue.
Toward the end of Tuesday’s county supervisors’ regular public meeting, County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett credited Supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do with what she called the “successful transition” of the Courtyard Transition Center.
The walk-in center was crafted out of an abandoned bus terminal back in 2016 in the midst of Do’s tight re-election campaign. This year, it was shut down as the County of Orange switched to another “appointment-only” homeless shelter, referred to as Yale Street for its location, in a different part of Santa Ana.
“We’ve done so much,” said Do, noting what he saw as tremendous progress in recent years on homeless response, housing and mental health outreach.
Yet, as usual, the political cheerleading isn’t backed up by numbers or results.
Note that more people died of homelessness in Orange County last year than ever.
According to official records, at least 330 homeless people died in 2020, up from about 200 the year before.
If those numbers aren’t enough for you, just walk the nearby neighborhoods around the civic center or stop by the nearby community center, El Centro Cultural de México, where Voice of OC rents office space.
The community center has turned into a homeless encampment since the county abruptly shut down the Courtyard Transition Center, which is just a few blocks away.
LA Times Columnist Gustavo Arellano stopped by El Centro last week and spoke with their volunteer board of directors, which have refused to call the police on the homeless, instead challenging local officials to offer social service options to the people living in the encampments.
That approach has triggered fines from the City of Santa Ana.
Yet it’s also netting them popular notice for their compassion, for publicly calling out the leaf blower approach to homlessness championed by the County of Orange.
Given how much the county has ignored these issues, I was stunned to hear Bartlett publicly credit Do for the “successful transition.”
“Thank you for your great leadership relative to the successful transition of the residents of the courtyard over to the Yale facility,: Bartlett said on Tuesday. “It was a very smooth operation, going from one location to the other.”
Bartlett said the new program at Yale is more focused than the courtyard, adding “It’s not just a low barrier to entry shelter, it’s really a transitional program to give everyone a chance to turn their lives around.”
Yet if the County of Orange gets out of the walk-in shelter business, who meets that need?
Nearby neighborhoods are now the walk-in shelter.
The county’s new “appointment-only” approach to homeless sheltering ends up leaving lots of sick and vulnerable people, not to mention mentally ill, on the streets – where nearby residents, businesses and schools get to deal with the impacts.
So what does Ben Vasquez, who serves on the El Centro board of directors, think of the job Andrew Do has done in his district?
“He’s the worst. He ran on this homeless thing and Andrew Do has been missing in action. Andrew Do is the most incompetent politician in Orange County.”
It’s a pretty stark difference between the world that Bartlett sees and the parking lot where Vasquez stands.
“I’m stressed. This is not what I do,” said Vasquez, a high school ethnic studies teacher, who scrambles most afternoons to service scores of homeless people who have camped out on the community center parking lot.
“This is not our mission.”
He knows where the homeless people come from because he’s asked them.
“Courtyard,” said Vasquez, “That’s where they came from.”
Santa Ana’s Mayor Vicente Sarmiento is also hearing from families at nearby Willard elementary school that they are concerned about walking their children to school because the nearby encampment is growing.
He’s also frustrated with the County of Orange and the lack of communication.
“We’re trying to fill the gap because there’s a lack of effort from the county,” said Sarmiento.
It’s the same thing that newly-elected County Supervisor Katrina Foley told me a few weeks ago about her experience with the County of Orange as the Mayor of Costa Mesa.
Foley told me as mayor she couldn’t even get the county to offer her city a briefing on their efforts.
Sarmiento wants to know why the county isn’t moving to establish permanent, supportive housing stock at large county-owned tracts, say the vacant and zoned 100 acres in Irvine.
Or the large, 100-acre hospital campus site in Costa Mesa, known as Fairview Developmental Center, which is being deactivated by the state.
“Either one of those is much better than Yale,” said Sarmiento.
Sarmiento also has a different view than Bartlett on the “transition.”
The way he sees it?
“We get dumped on.
That’s why we are in litigation.”
That’s the same message you hear if you talk to one of the main lawyers who is representing homeless clients in federal court against the County of Orange.
“There’s a consistent choice to not do the actual solution,” said Brooke Weitzman, a UCI Law School grad whose Santa Ana-based law firm launched a historic federal lawsuit in 2018 against the County of Orange when officials went to clear homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River without providing any real housing options for homeless.
The basic point of Weitzman’s lawsuit is the same as El Centro’s approach: You can’t criminalize homelessness as a jurisdiction when you don’t offer effective housing options for homeless people.
Weitzman said that shutting down the Courtyard Center makes no sense, even if the County opened up the site at Yale Street.
As it is, the county can’t find beds for those who agree to go, she says.
Yet to Weitzman, it’s absurd to ask people to stay grouped together in interior areas, like the shelter at Yale, in the era of Covid.
“I can’t for the life of me understand why we are having discussions around congregate living,” Weitzman said.
Indeed, with federal and state money out there to buy motels and hotels and retrofit them for permanent, affordable housing, it makes no sense that the County of Orange doesn’t have a public strategy to go out and purchase relevant properties.
Bartlett herself has publicly called on county officials to do just that.
With little progress.
There was also the laudatory goal from the United Way to work with OC apartment owners to get people immediately housed.
And there is also the empty county property in Orange – in an institutional zoning area and near the jail and Social Services – that once used to house the county animal shelter.
Yet month after month, there’s no public updates on any of these initiatives.
Remember the Orange County Housing Finance Trust established in 2018 – with the support of county supervisors?
They had the aim of building 2700 permanent, supportive housing units by 2025.
Yet the effort seems to be making minimal progress.
Their own website notes a whopping 15 percent completion rate for finished housing units so far.
Note that last we reported, there are ongoing Covid outbreaks at multiple homeless shelters.
Yet this week there was not one word in public from county supervisors or county staff about those conditions or updates.
Just more empty applause.
For the record, the most frank and spot-on assessment of the County of Orange approach to homelessness came from Andrew Do himself.
At a March 2018 federal court hearing in the Santa Ana council chambers, after U.S. District Judge David Carter pointed to Voice of OC coverage and pressed the county on why it was stockpiling mental health money, Do took center stage.
Standing before the crowd of activists, homeless people, county officials and city managers, Do said there was no defense for the supervisors’ inaction in spending homelessness funds:
“I’m gonna tell you, as a chairman of the Board of Supervisors we don’t have a defense. We don’t have a defense. And I’m going to be the first to own up in that we have failed,” Do said.
“To lead requires that we are proactive, not reactive. And we have failed,” he added.
“[The] thing that caused us to not be able to spend the money is political paralysis.”