For the first time in a decade, Orange County leaders won’t be offering those living on the streets any kind of quick shelter options during the coldest nights of the year. 

This, at a time when homeless deaths are already at record levels and we find ourselves amidst an ongoing COVID and flu surge.

National Guard leaders confirmed to Voice of OC that they are not currently operating any cold weather shelters in either Santa Ana or Fullerton, as in years past.

The stalemate is the product of the decade-long battle between the County of Orange and Santa Ana leaders. 

City leaders complain walk-in shelters are routinely put in their city, impacting nearby neighborhoods that already struggle with quality of life issues. 

Santa Ana officials are done with that and have told county leaders as much.

That has left county leaders scrambling. 

“We are still looking at options for a cold weather program,” said County of Orange CEO Frank Kim when I reached out to him on Thursday. 

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge David Carter approved a shelter for Santa Ana, telling county officials they could use the National Guard armory.

Apparently, they had the Salvation Army ready as an operator but after legal threats from Santa Ana, they stepped away, according to testimony at the Dec. 14 county homeless commission. 

Faced with the fact that now the county has nobody to operate a walk-in shelter, county officials just apparently shrugged their shoulders and went off to prepare holiday meals for themselves. 

While the most vulnerable sleep in the streets during the coldest days of the year.

A stunning failure on all our parts to solve something very fixable in one of the richest places on earth. 

“As long as we’re still watching hundreds of people die out there and not changing what we’re doing, our community has failed,” said Brooke Weitzman, a public interest attorney who has worked on homeless issues in the county over the past decade and was a leader on the 2018 federal lawsuit that garnered so much attention. 

[Read: Lawsuit Seeks End to Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Evictions; County Says It Won’t Stop]

It’s a situation that Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer reached out to me about on the heels of my last column on homelessness, highlighting the fact that a lack of cold weather shelters is a genuine public safety threat. 

[Read: Santana: Orange County’s Longest Night Shouldn’t Always Be The Coldest]

Spitzer publicly pointed out the safety threat to the county’s homelessness commission at its most recent December meeting. 

“Everyone of us should show up in his courtroom,” Spitzer told his fellow commissioners that day, warning that county leaders should go back to Carter’s federal court to demand action on a cold weather shelter,” he told county leaders. 

The answer to a DA ringing alarm bells about a public safety and health crisis where people could die in the cold?

Pretty much crickets.

County bureaucrats reacted to Spitzer at the Dec. 14 county homeless commission meeting with their usual, slow, monotone verbal response, noting they’d soon be presenting their housing plan to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. 

That’s the plan that calls for homeless people to keep sleeping in the streets until 2029.

This white flag option is what I laid out in what I thought would be my last column of the year, reminding us all to not accept lack of action on the longest night of the year. 

Little did I know that I’d spend the longest night of the year writing copy, trading texts with county supervisors trying to figure out why taxpayers still have to watch people sleep on the streets. 

All of this as a host of public agencies are granted unprecedented sums of dollars through federal, local and state coffers – along with some of the most healthy property taxes in the United States.

I get the fact that our public officials are so collectively lame they cannot figure out how to build adequate levels of supportive housing with medical and mental health services – and more – to meet the needs of residents sleeping on the streets.

Yet given that, it seems unconscionable to not come up with at least quick walk-in shelter option as temperatures continue to drop. 

That should be a straightforward operation, as if it were a public emergency like a wildfire.

And it should start with public properties, not private neighborhoods. 

Regionalization of services seems key here to get beyond the political logjam in Santa Ana. 

Those city leaders need to feel like their city isn’t the only one on the front lines. 

Options are out there.

Public parking Lots. 

It would seem reasonable to take up Father Dennis Kriz of St. Philip Benizi’s Church in Fullerton on his suggestions to open public parking lots to people who can at least muster a car to sleep in. 

In fact, one would think that public lots – say at courts or the county facilities – could easily serve as overnight lots that have automatic check-ins with police in the morning hours. 

Hotel and apartment vouchers. 

Without having to build anything, there’s a quick way to get someone who is ready for housing into a hotel, motel or apartment. 

Publicly-owned empty lots.  

There are empty lots, in some cases already zoned for homeless services, across Orange County that could already be put into use. There’s 100 acres in Irvine and a vacant animal shelter in Orange near the jail, just to name a couple. 

Now it’s unclear whether county homelessness commissioners took up Spitzer on his challenge to go back to Carter or figured out any other stopgap options.

Weitzman points out that county leaders could simply hand out vouchers for motels in the area to meet the needs for those over 60 or facing disabilities. 

Most county supervisors didn’t respond to texts asking them what their best ideas are for this challenge.

Only Supervisor Katrina Foley actually took my call and fielded questions, taking issue with my contention that we’ve all failed.

“I’m not afraid of any of these hard questions,” Foley said, adding “I’ve been addressing this since day one.”

She points to more than 350 housing units she’s helped get authorized, even noting county leaders approved another shelter this week in Garden Grove

But she also admits that people are spending too long in congregate shelters, there’s not enough affordable housing for the vulnerable and the government is behind on simple solutions like making parking options available. 

So much for all the backslapping, victory laps from the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Stalemate and cowardice should never be a governing strategy. 

And free citizens should never tolerate civic leaders who just throw up their hands, head home and avoid questions. 

While the vulnerable are left alone in the cold. 

•••

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