Orange County will be getting a winter homeless shelter after all – a couple months into the cold weather season, and after this month’s heavy rainstorms.
It comes after an earlier failed attempt to open one in Santa Ana, leaving thousands of homeless people in OC without a place to get out of the cold and rain. Just over 3,000 people were unsheltered in Orange County as of the latest official count one year ago.
County supervisors moved forward Tuesday with plans for a temporary shelter at Independence Park in Fullerton, set to be open from Feb. 1 through the end of March.
The number of beds – 90 – will be far less than the 400 available in the past, when cold-weather shelters operated during a much longer period: from October through April or later.
It’s slated to be open from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. each day, officials said, with people transported to and from the shelter from shuttle stops elsewhere.
“We see this both as an immediate respite to the extreme weather, but also as an opportunity to connect folks that previously may not have been connected to our system,” said Doug Brecht, the county’s top homelessness official, at Tuesday’s meeting.
The shelter will provide people with a hot shower, a warm meal, a bagged breakfast and an opportunity to connect with a case manager to provide links to long term housing and social services as a record number of homeless people are dying in the county.
The case managers, Brecht said, would be provided by the shelter operator the county has hired – the LA-based nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).
OC officials separately have acknowledged a severe shortage of housing that’s affordable to homeless people. Meanwhile, state officials have upped the pressure on local elected leaders to zone for more affordable homes.
County officials acknowledge they’re now years behind schedule in building the housing they say is needed to help get people off the streets.
Not everyone is convinced the shelter will help people transition to long term housing.
“While we all know that overnight only congregate settings will not support any transition to housing, it is great news that when the next storm comes. Some vulnerable residents will have a door to walk through for help,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who represents Orange County homeless people in civil rights cases, in a text message to Voice of OC.
She said homeless people in other parts of the county still need a cold weather shelter.
“For North OC, this first step will provide enormous relief. I look forward to seeing the plan for central and south county,” Weitzman said.
The Independence Park shelter has been supported by Fullerton city leaders, with Councilman Ahmad Zahra coming to the supervisors’ meeting this week to speak in favor.
Zahra said leaders also have a moral duty to ensure mental health services are offered to people at the shelter.
Earlier this month, he and the rest of the Fullerton City Council voted unanimously to allow their city manager to negotiate with the county on opening the temporary cold shelter.
The Independence Park shelter will include “a space that’s sort of carved out” with fencing and privacy for people using the site, as well as for neighbors and community members who may be using the park for other purposes, said Brecht, the county homelessness official.
Supervisor Katrina Foley said that could become a model for cities to feel comfortable hosting shelters elsewhere in the county.
The decision to open up the shelter comes about a month after National Guard leaders confirmed to the Voice of OC that there weren’t any cold weather shelters operating in the county like there had been the years before.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who represents Fullerton and chairs the county’s homelessness commission, said the county probably would have a shelter open earlier, but no groups stepped forward to operate it when the county asked twice in the middle of last year.
Efforts to open a cold weather shelter in Santa Ana operated by the Salvation Army fell through after Santa Ana officials – who feel wealthier cities in the county have not done their fair share in addressing homelessness – sued.
Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento, the former mayor of Santa Ana, thanked Fullerton officials for their efforts.
“We need to look early at a shelter or a way that we can go ahead and rotate that responsibility, because as you know, this is a regional problem. This is something that should be shared by all of us in the county,” he said.
Weitzman continued her calls for the county to fully use the $4 million the state provided for seniors to get sheltered in motels and elsewhere in Fullerton.
“We can only hope the supervisors will step up and demand [county Adult Protective Services] use the HomeSafe funds now to ensure every person over 60 who enters that door can be immediately enrolled in the state funded program,” she said.
“Currently, seniors wait weeks in the cold with no answer because Orange County failed to implement a process for emergency access to HomeSafe despite state direction to use presumptive eligibility.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.