With cold weather creeping in and homeless deaths in the hundreds, county plans for a rainy season shelter in Santa Ana are now on ice.

The roadblock: City of Santa Ana officials, who oppose hosting another county-sponsored emergency refuge in a Latino and working-class city they say has for years been a homeless repository for wealthier and whiter ones in south county.  

Resident complaints began mounting last month in email chains with county officials, reporting trash and campers right outside a shelter that county leaders opened on Yale Street – despite neighborhood opposition in 2020 and assurances that none of this would be the case. 

A Sept. 22 email from county Office of Care Coordination Director Doug Becht responding to residents’ complaints over campers roaming the area outside the county shelter on Yale St.

It’s an undue burden for Santa Ana – one both city officials and advocates for homeless people can agree on. 

But does that mean the area’s unhoused should lose out on the few lifelines that exist?

“Particularly when we’re talking about hypothermia?” Asks Brooke Weitzmann, a high-profile attorney for homeless and disabled people who’s against city efforts to block the Salvation Army site. “It’s already raining.”

“It’s already cold.” 

There are 87 families – 27 of them with children – waiting in line for a place to sleep across the county’s motel housing and bed reservation systems, according to numbers provided by the OC Social Services Agency on Wednesday.

“The cold weather shelter is a terrible place,” Weitzmann said. “But it’s a place we need.”

It might go elsewhere instead. 

On Friday, Santa Ana and county officials will come face-to-face in federal court before U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who’s calling for other location options in the county and might make wealthier cities step up in some way.

In a minute order from a prior hearing last Friday, Carter’s calling on officials from South OC – what’s considered to be a homeless services void by comparison – to show up to court this Friday 

“The County is working on the information requested by Judge Carter,” said county spokesperson Mechelle Perez in a Wednesday emailed response to questions. “The County will be submitting the information to the Court on Thursday, October 20th in advance of the Friday, October 21st hearing.”

No ‘Unified Strategy’

The latest legal dispute adds to a long list of questions about what regional homelessness efforts have produced these past few years – and what those plans look like. 

This week, Orange County supervisors rejected an effort to better track performance of their hundreds of millions in annual homelessness spending of taxpayer money.

An audit commissioned last year by Supervisor Katrina Foley found that despite all of the spending, the county did not have a consistent strategy or metrics to measure whether or not the overall spending is working.

“The county doesn’t have any unified strategy for addressing homelessness – no agreed-upon outcomes that you’re working toward,” said Colleen Rozillis, a partner at accounting firm Moss Adams, during an April 20 county hearing on homelessness Foley organized.

Last Friday, Carter temporarily sided with Santa Ana and blocked the county shelter’s planned opening at the Salvation Army location on 3rd and Garfield streets, just days before county supervisors were poised to approve its contract at their Tuesday meeting. 

The vote didn’t happen, as city officials at last Friday’s hearing told Carter they operate a 200-bed year-round shelter on top of the county-run, 425-bed site at Yale Street. 

Claiming beds are still available in both, Santa Ana officials denied a need for the Salvation Army site.  

A cold weather walk-in shelter in Santa Ana for the whole county, the city argued, would require people travel long distances from areas where the services are fewer but the need no less great. 

Carter seemed to agree. He’s set this Friday’s hearing around gathering “information concerning shelter alternatives,” according to his minute order.

“His language was not at all ambivalent and it was very strong and showed there is capacity here, both with the county shelter at Yale and city shelter at Carnegie,” said Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento during Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting.

City Hall spokesperson Paul Eakins said 132 beds at Carnegie were occupied as of Saturday, Oct. 15. The city has 125 beds reserved for homeless people from Santa Ana at the Yale Shelter per an agreement with the county. 

“Due to changing guidance from the State and County’s Public Health departments regarding COVID-19, the Yale Navigation Center is increasing its occupancy capacity, bringing 28 additional beds online,” said Perez, the county spokesperson, in a Wednesday email. 

Another council member at the Tuesday meeting, David Penaloza, said the need “is not there.” 

“For years we have seen how the county always chooses Santa Ana to open cold weather shelters,” he said. “We can give shelter to those out on the streets but there needs to be a more equitable approach.”

Councilmember Phil Bacerra, meanwhile, said other cities should pick up the slack on housing.

“One thing I would ask my colleagues to indulge in is to advocate for permanent supportive housing being equitably distributed,” he said. “Santa Ana has done more than its fair share and it’s time other cities step up.”

He turned to the subject of the old state hospital on Fairview in Costa mesa. 

“I am frustrated by the fact that I’ve seen communication come out of Costa Mesa about envisioning that site for housing, but not envisioning that site for services for those with mental health challenges. And why is nobody stepping up to say, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa pump the breaks,’” Bacerra said Tuesday night.

‘A True Emergency’ 

The situation all ties into Santa Ana’s years-long public awareness campaign on its disproportionate role in shelters and services in the region – one notably waged through public nuisance disputes with homeless service providers in town.

In the case of Micah’s Way – an all-volunteer resource center on East 4th Street providing identification, birth certificates, bus passes, food, and toiletries – the city denied a needed occupancy permit, arguing the center fed homeless people in violation of local zoning laws.

Likewise, the city filed a separate challenge against the Salvation Army in state court on Friday over the cold weather shelter plans, stating it wouldn’t be a permitted use under city guidelines

But with Carter’s verbal ruling last Friday, the city in a Monday news release said it withdrew its state challenge. 

Eakins declined to say what would happen to the case if Carter somehow reversed his position in federal court.

Santa Ana’s idea is to get south county into the fold. 

Weitzmann’s concern is what happens to people right now. 

When the rains come, a cold weather site like the county-sponsored Salvation Army refuge would be an easy place for people to escape the elements by walking in – no appointments or referrals needed.

The Yale and Carnegie shelters don’t allow walk-ups. They’re referral-only. 

“Their beds come with barriers, limits on who can get in,” Weitzmann said. “Certainly the cold weather shelters aren’t going to be full everyday, but they’re always full when it’s raining and we’re heading into rainy seasons.”

It’s a concern that Santa Ana’s mayor said he shares.

“When there’s a true emergency caused by climate or rain or extreme heat — those conditions for entry should be relaxed,” Sarmiento said during Tuesday’s council meeting. 

“That is where I do agree.” 

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed reporting. 

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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