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Costa Mesa City Council unanimously approved a $2 million a year contract with Mercy House Living Centers to operate their new homeless shelter for a three-year term starting next month.

“Before we had something like this, we really didn’t have an option for our emergency personnel, police officers and fire department to really handle situations like this and now we have that,” said Councilman Loren Gameros at Tuesday’s meeting.

The decision comes as cities across Orange County are rethinking their approach to the homelessness crisis.

Cities like Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Anaheim, Buena Park , Fullerton and Santa Ana are moving or considering moving away from using police officers as homeless responders and instead discussing using social workers to address calls on mental health and homelessness.

Irvine city council members are expected to consider allowing their police chief to partner with Be Well OC to create a mobile crisis response team pilot program at their meeting Tuesday.

The idea for the switch is inspired by the CAHOOTS model launched in Eugene, Oregon, which Brooke Weitzman, co-founder and directing attorney of the Elder Law Disability Rights Center, said has been significantly more successful in getting people the help they need.

“Many times in Orange County and nationally, folks who are unhoused — especially folks who are unhoused and also have a mental health condition — often end up dead in police encounters,” Weitzman said in a phone interview Thursday.

Weitzman added the programs she’s seen so far in the county still involve police and still has a ways to go.

“In many of these cities, you need to go through a police officer to get into a homeless shelter. There is no shelter in Orange County you can just walk up to,” she said.

Weitzman also said that because the county hasn’t stepped up with a cohesive model, each city is taking a different approach to the CAHOOTS model.

“Having a different set of outreach, a different process, a different intake, a different entity in each city as we try and develop a cohesive model without the county stepping in a leadership role to have some sort of county wide healthcare led approach is bound to lead to some trouble,” she said.

While some look to the County to chime in, its commission to end homelessness has cancelled seven of their last 12 meetings, including one this week.

Supervisor Katrina Foley — the former mayor of Costa Mesa — said at a county board meeting earlier this month that it should be the county footing the bill for mental health response.

However, the idea of using social workers to respond to homeless and mental health calls has not been formally discussed by Costa Mesa council members.

“It’s certainly something to consider,” Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens said in a phone interview Thursday. 

Lawsuits Pushed Cities to Build Shelters

Two signs expressing people’s opinion of the county’s eviction of the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp shown here on Feb. 1, 2018. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The creation of Costa Mesa’s shelter is a result of a lawsuit filed against the County of Orange, and the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa in 2018 over the removal of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed

Costa Mesa settled the federal lawsuit brought by the nonprofit group Orange County Catholic Worker and seven homeless individuals and as a result was directed by a district court judge to provide 62 shelter beds

The city wasn’t alone. 

Cities across Orange County created more shelter space following the lawsuit.

Weitzman, an attorney in the 2018 Catholic Worker case against the county, said when the lawsuits started, homeless people were being criminalized and cycling in and out of jail.

“Cities were really focused on criminalizing poverty as a tactic to make the problem invisible and we’re not focused at all on solutions ranging from emergency shelters to housing to other supportive services,” she said.

“When the cities all realized, ‘hey, we can’t make this problem disappear through policing.’ They really all took kind of a hard look at what they can do and most started with emergency shelters.”

Since 2019, Costa Mesa temporarily used the Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene to provide beds until their permanent shelter opened earlier this year. 

Mercy House operated the temporary shelter under a $1,457,000 a year contract.

Between April 2019 to April 2021, Mercy House and the city’s Network for Homeless Solutions permanently housed 178 formerly homeless people in Costa Mesa, according to a city staff report.

The operators have also been able to keep residents at the shelter free of Covid since the start of the pandemic by moving vulnerable people to motels, Stephens, the Costa Mesa mayor, said.

Costa Mesa’s shelter is a partnership with the city of Newport Beach.

Orange County’s Affordable Housing Struggle

Homes in Newport Beach on May 18, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Weitzman and shelter operators like Larry Haynes, CEO of Mercy House, say that such facilities are only a temporary fix intended to transition people off the streets and into housing.

“The point of a shelter is … to get them to the next step of housing,” Haynes said in a phone interview Thursday.  “A shelter is a part of a system.”

The system starts with outreach on the streets to get people into the shelters, where operators can help them get into a home.

Yet there is a lack of affordable housing in the county, they say.

“Almost always the reason that there is difficulty with housing placement is a lack of available housing, in particular housing that is affordable and appropriate for people coming out of our shelter system,” Haynes said.

County residents have identified housing and homelessness as the most important issues, according to the 2020 Orange County Annual Survey conducted by Chapman University.

“The most important thing we can do as a community is to create more housing,” he added. “Shelters are only as effective as their exit strategies and exit strategies are wholly dependent upon housing opportunities.”

Weitzman said there hasn’t been a shortage of development in the county but that it has focused on expensive homes.

“Had all the developments been done equally, we would have probably had plenty of housing but we did substantially more than needed in above moderate (income homes) for most cities and substantially less than needed in very low and extremely low (income homes),” Weitzman said.

Meanwhile, city officials all over the county have been pushing back on state mandated housing goals.

The frustration started after the state tasked the Southern California Association of Governments — made up of city council members across the region — to come up with zoning for 1.3 million homes across six counties, including more than 180,000 in Orange County by October 2029.

Over 75,000 of those units have to be very low income to low income homes.

Sixteen cities in the county, including Costa Mesa, filed appeals with the regional board to try to bring down the number of homes they have to zone for by the 2029 deadline. 

The regional board denied all of the appeals.

Costa Mesa has to zone for 11,760 new homes of which over 4,700 have to be very low income to low income homes.

Stephens said those numbers will be difficult to attain but acknowledged the city has not done enough to create a regulatory and zoning environment to incentivize development of affordable housing.

“The proof is that we don’t have a lot of affordable housing and certainly permanent supportive housing in our city so we have a long way to go,” he said.

Stephens added an inclusionary housing ordinance could help and said it’s expected to be on a city council agenda in the fall.

Weitzman said the question now is what cities will do to address affordable housing needs and reduce the amount of people becoming homeless.

“We can’t deny that any city in Orange County has people who are in need of housing and as the eviction moratoriums lift we’ll have more and more people who are at risk or homeless,” she said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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