Shuttered bus depot could be Orange County’s next homeless shelter

People living near  the Santa Ana River Trail  move their belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works
People living near the Santa Ana River Trail move their belongings in preparation for an Orange County law enforcement and public works "sweep" on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Authorities say their aim is to move people out of the way of coming storms. Many homeless individuals have to scramble to find shelter and storage for their personal items to avoid being arrested for camping and having their belongings and animals confiscated.
Susanica Tam for KPCC

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Even as the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to open the county's first year-round emergency shelter for homeless in Anaheim this week, they signaled the work of building controversial shelters is not done. 

Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the county is in final discussions with the transportation authority to take over a shuttered bus depot in Santa Ana to build a second shelter.

“That certainly would be, at least a temporary facility, that we could use year-round as opposed to the National Guard Armories," Nelson said, referring to the winter shelters. "They are limited.” 

The Santa Ana Transit Terminal, owned by the Orange County Transportation Authority, has been shut down since December 2008.

Some homeless activists have pitched using it as a check-in center where people can store belongings and use the restrooms. It’s been suggested, even seriously considered, as a place to build a homeless shelter or service center. But the bus depot has sat empty.

The depot was last appraised at $3.3 million, according to OCTA spokesperson Joel Zlotnik.

Because it was originally built using funding from the Federal Transit Administration, Zlotnik said the OCTA would have to pay the government back if the facility was sold, unless the sale revenue was reinvested in an FTA-approved transportation project.

No transaction has been made and no plans have been secured for how Orange County would use the facility to address homelessness.

During the winter months, up to 200 homeless people sleep overnight at each of the armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton. But they cannot leave their belongings there because they must be out by 6 a.m. so the military can use the facilities.

That’s part of the reason why Orange County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of a $4.2 million warehouse in Anaheim to build a permanent shelter. The multi-service center is expected to house up to 200 people and act as a triage center where health, job and housing social workers would help homeless clients find permanent housing.

While it’s not the solution, Nelson said a multi-service center is the missing ingredient in Orange County’s plan to end homelessness.

“What we don’t have right now in Orange County is a full-time location to triage homelessness,” he said. “Imagine our healthcare system without emergency rooms."

Attorney Heather Maria Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union applauded county officials for finding places to shelter the homeless, but she said she hopes the focus will soon turn to building permanent housing with supportive services.

“The emergency shelter alone without those permanent resources won’t solve the problem,” she said.