A jobseeker looking to clean up.

A woman whose husband tried to kill her.

Those are the types of people who found solace, pre-pandemic, at a South Main Street homeless service center in some cases every day of the week in Santa Ana.

And later wrote about it in sworn court declarations. 

The center’s one of several homeless service providers throughout Orange County – like Micah’s Way, the Harm Reduction Institute and Mary’s Kitchen – getting pushed out by local city officials over public nuisance complaints.

They represent one side of the homelessness debate that views direct assistance and basic needs as crucial to helping people recover their lives – and with full autonomy. 

That seemed to jive less and less with local officials over the years, seeing these sites draw visible homeless presence, in favor of what some consider a new rallying point: Court-ordered mental health treatment.

It’s called CARE Court, and it seeks to put people with critical mental health issues into court-ordered treatment plans for up to two years before they deteriorate or commit crimes.  

[Read: California’s CARE Court: A Step in the Right Direction or ‘Terrifying’ Step Backwards? ]

The system relies on community-based treatment resources to help people along the program. 

It also responds to noncompliance by referring people without sound self-decision-making ability for conservatorships. 

County officials say they have most of what they need to handle CARE Court’s main population: People with severe mental illnesses.

“People who might just need a shower – that’s not what this was intended for,” said Dr. Veronica Kelley, chief of Mental Health and Recovery Services at the OC Health Care Agency, in a phone interview.

But there are questions of why some OC cities would push out existing places that don’t exclusively serve the mental health population, but still offer resources that CARE Court patients could rely on like food, showers and clothing. 

Let alone the remaining homeless people on the streets.

All while critics say CARE Court doesn’t guarantee permanent housing.

OC officials have jumped to the front of CARE Court’s rollout, one of six other counties that volunteered to pilot the system over the next year.

Lawmakers say that treatment currently only happens after homeless people get arrested.

County officials say the new Be Well OC mental health treatment center in Orange is one way of handling CARE Court’s expected demands.

“Be Well is one of our signature service delivery campuses here in the county, and it has different levels of care in it,” Kelley said.

That includes psychiatric urgent care and residential facilities where people can get treatment for 90 days. 

“So the campus just gives us all those in one place … we could assist them if they have a mental illness and in finding perhaps some permanent supportive housing, which might be more difficult because they have medical issues with their mental illness.”

The new statewide policy direction, and local cities’ move to push out service providers they oppose, have some questioning what might happen to everyone else. 

The ‘Only’ Solution? 

The new treatment plan is highly controversial, rattling the nerves of disability rights advocates who see the new program as a step backward.

In the long run, they say the plan guarantees no housing but empowers courts to warehouse people in shelters, or place them in conservatorships if they lack sound decision-making ability and refuse to comply.

Among the critics are Lili Graham, an attorney with Disability Rights California who makes several observations, among them that state lawmakers seem to have marketed CARE Court “as the only solution to homelessness.”

CARE Court proponents say it isn’t exclusive to homeless people or intended for all of them. 

Rather, the new law’s authors say it’s for those with severe mental health and substance abuse issues in general – people on the pathway to homelessness, who might get diverted with the right checkpoint, like mental health or drug rehab programs.

Graham says CARE Court’s not the only way, and points to the homeless services center on South Main Street, run by the Mental Health Association of OC. 

“That center is a long-held best practices to solve homelessness and has been successful for thousands of people,” Graham said in an interview.

When you can’t take a shower, “something breaks down inside of you,” wrote 39-year-old Lunyea Willis in a sworn court filing two years ago, which supported the South Main Street center in a lawsuit with Santa Ana.

“Not being able to maintain a professional image and look clean shattered [my] confidence. I felt broken. I was selling people food all day, but I was hungry,” her declaration reads. 

The hardship, Willis said, eventually drew her to South Main Street, where she said she got mental health treatment, personal hygiene assistance, educational and support groups, and help to build daily life skills.

“When it was open, I went to the center seven days a week,” reads Willis’ court declaration. 

Then, after about 20 years of operation, the center closed in 2020 amidst a lawsuit by Santa Ana officials and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Tired of Bearing the Burden

“MHA has been the source of consistent and significant problems, crimes, complaints, and calls for service for the Santa Ana Police Department,” reads a complaint officials filed against the Association in January 2020, in an ongoing case.

In the complaint, city officials argued “the nuisance operations” of the center “extended” to nearby businesses and neighborhoods leading up to the end of the 2010s. 

They argued that from 2017 to 2019, SAPD received more than 249 calls for service at the property and involving its clients, relating the calls for service to a “wide variety of criminal conduct.”

The city’s lawsuit factored into a larger effort to bring awareness to Santa Ana’s unwilling role as a “dumping ground” for OC’s homeless population – and its disproportionate burden of building shelters and developing homeless services compared to wealthier cities in south county. 

As the seat of county government, Santa Ana’s where the county jails are, and thus is where people are released. It’s also home to the county Social Services Agency office.

The city’s anti-dumping ground effort continued when it targeted the Harm Reduction Institute, a voluntary homeless addiction treatment center in town which distributed naloxone, clean syringes, and counseling. 

The center closed at the start of this year, after the city revoked its permit.

The city also faces a legal threat from Micah’s Way, an all-volunteer and Christian nonprofit resource center which helps provides family services, identification and birth certificates, as well as bus passes, food, and toiletries. 

The resource center also provides a mailing address for more than 1,000 people who otherwise wouldn’t have one, said Micah’s Way’s president, Vaskin Koshkerian, who adds the center’s been doing local officials’ job for them. 

“A lot of police from the cities, they bring people here for help. People tell me they would be stealing, doing a lot of stuff if it wasn’t for Micah’s Way,” Koshkerian said in a phone interview. 

But the place’s fate is in mediation. 

In June the city denied the center’s Certificate of Occupancy application for the new space it moved to on 4th Street from 17th, saying that feeding homeless people violated zoning laws.

Micah’s Way appealed and it’s an ongoing administrative dispute. 

Most recently a retired judge acting as a hearing officer told Santa Ana to consider less restrictive ways – other than flat out denying the center’s occupancy application – of limiting the site’s land use to to reduce the facility’s adverse impacts to the surrounding neighborhood, citing protections under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

Requests for comment to city spokesman Paul Eakins on Micah’s Way went unreturned Tuesday.

Koshkerian too wonders about CARE Court – “Why does the City of Santa Ana want to close me down, then?” 

“We’re the only people left. They closed Mary’s Kitchen. We’re the only people left.”

Soup Kitchen in Flux

August marked the end of Mary’s Kitchen’s decades-long life in the City of Orange, offering many of the same services Micah’s Way provides – and roiling that city’s officials all the same.

Now the kitchen runs out of an industrial area in southeast Anaheim off Debra Lane. And things are looking much different for how the place will work, said the kitchen’s leader, Gloria Seuss. 

“We moved to Anaheim. It was very very difficult and it’s still difficult,” Seuss said. “Nobody wants the homeless around. We have to find different ways of serving them, like food distribution at parking lots and churches … We’re not going to go in the same direction. We won’t be cooking for them. We will go to them. It’s just sad there’s not a way out of this.”

Since 1994, the City of Orange leased an industrial lot to the kitchen for $1 a year. 

Officials terminated the lease in 2021, arguing the kitchen had become a public nuisance and criminal attraction in recent years despite its decades of operation and closeness to the police headquarters. 

When hit with a lawsuit, the city in a federal settlement agreement committed to filling in for the lost services at the old Orange site for a year.

That includes installing and maintaining no less than eight showers, two with disability access, and providing things like food, toilets, mail, laundry, and phone charging. 

‘Hard to Adjust’

Willis, the 39-year-old job seeker, used the South Main Street homeless center until it closed and Willis was one of three homeless people to file declarations in support of the center.

Another was Donna Rosalie Carranza, a 64-year-old and 20-year Orange County local.

“Some years ago, my now deceased husband attempted to kill me by stabbing me in the back with a knife, and as a result of that incident and the ongoing domestic abuse I went through, I have permanent right-side nerve and muscle damage,” said Carranza in her court declaration.

Carranza became homeless in July 2012, she said, “after I lost the apartment I shared with my son and daughter-in-law. I have been homeless since then, and the only income I receive is social security and a small amount that I get every month in food stamps.”

For the past eight years, up to 2020, Carranza used the center’s services “on a daily basis as a member.”

“I learned about MHA OC because my son, who also has a mental health disability and was homeless, was using services at the Center at the time. MHA OC helped my son get off drugs and he is now working out-of-state,” Carranza said.

The center’s closure had, by the time of her declaration, already hit Carranza hard.

“I have no place to use the bathroom, shower, or do my laundry. I have not had access to my PTSD group in weeks and I am having trouble dealing with my PTSD symptoms without it […] It took me a long time to feel secure at the Center, and now suddenly it is closed. It has been hard to adjust. I do not know what I will do without the Center if it is permanently shut down.”

Disability Rights California filed the declarations on the homeless people’s behalf. 

In a written statement sent to Voice of OC, City of Santa Ana staff say they sued MHA “to protect the neighborhood from the intense nuisance conditions created by MHA’s operations in a land use zone not intended for MHA’s operations.” 

“MHA has failed to address negative impacts from its operations,” Eakins said. “We look forward to proving the City’s position in court.”

From 2016 to 2018, the center linked nearly nearly 200 people to permanent housing, and more than 3,000 people to medical benefits and substance abuse treatment, according to a 2018 county report on the center’s contracted outcomes. 

Before its closure, the center hoped to get 135 more people into permanent housing by 2021 and 1,800 people into voluntary treatment programs, according to the county report. The facility serviced an average of 85 to 90 adults per day. 

While fighting Santa Ana on the South Main Street homeless center, Disability Rights California has voiced objection to CARE Court.

The group joined more than 40 advocacy organizations up and down the state – from a statewide union of homeless people and various legal aid offices, to the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. 

The new framework’s list of supporters, by comparison, consists of local chambers of commerce; travel, hospital and building industry associations; and a coalition of the state’s big city mayors.

Among that list was Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.