Business & Economy

Orange County approved — then caved — on a plan to shelter homeless people

A line of homeless people at the Santa Ana riverbed wait to get connected with a motel room or shelter. on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
A line of homeless people at the Santa Ana riverbed wait to get connected with a motel room or shelter. on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
Jill Replogle/KPCC

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At an emotional and jam-packed meeting Tuesday, Orange County Supervisors voted to reverse course on a homeless housing plan they passed just last week.

That plan, which passed eight days ago on a 4-1 vote, paved the way for potential homeless housing in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.

It proved a short-lived proposal to alleviate a pressing crisis in the county. 

All three cities identified as site for the temporary shelters had threatened legal action over the measure. In Irvine, hundreds of residents turned out to protest over the weekend. Supervisors had planned to place a a 200-bed emergency shelter there on county land zoned for homeless housing.

Tuesday's 4-0 vote to rescind last week's approval came after hours of charged comment from politicians, homeless advocates and residents. 

Chairman Andrew Do, who had called last week's approval "fantastic," was not present.

The objections

"No one wants to have or host this difficult population," Supervisor Shawn Nelson said Tuesday. "Who's willing to step up?" 

Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Michelle Steel announced last week that they were withdrawing their support from the plan due to public safety and health concerns at the sites.

The hearing room in Santa Ana was at capacity. More than 200 people packed the chamber and hundreds more protested outside. Protestors included both opponents and supporters of plans to provide homeless people with more housing in Orange County.

The mayors of Irvine and Laguna Niguel spoke forcefully against plans for shelters in their cities.

"This plan needs to be killed now," said Laguna Niguel Mayor Elaine Gennawey. 

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner told the Board that chemical contamination and a lack of infrastructure made the site approved in his city a poor choice.

"It is not a place fit for human habitation," he said.

Congressman Dana Rohrbacher also objected to last week's vote, suggesting homeless housing would be a magnet drawing drug addicts and alcoholics to Orange County.

Resistance from Irvine was particularly fierce at the meeting, with several residents expressing opposition to the proposed site.

Eve Garrow of the American Civil Liberties Union said the speed and ferocity of the backlash concerned her.

"Our leaders at both the city and county levels are really engaging in fear-mongering and very, very hateful rhetoric," she told KPCC.

At the same time, Garrow said the proposed sites were not viable, long-term solutions. She said she hoped the reversal opened the door to the county funding permanent supportive housing.

Garrow pointed to the supervisors' approval of $70.5 million to buy and renovate supportive housing for the mentally ill as a positive sign.

The unsolved crisis

The whiplash on a temporary housing solution comes weeks after Orange County evicted hundreds of homeless people living along the Santa Ana riverbed. The tent city, near Anaheim's ARTIC transit center and Angel Stadium, was a striking reminder of the extent of homelessness in one of America's wealthiest counties.

Hundreds of those removed from the riverbed were temporarily placed in motels, many for longer than the 30 days originally planned for. The county is under pressure from U.S. District Court Judge David Carter to find beds in shelters, substance abuse programs and rehab facilities to house them.

On Sunday, Judge Carter wrote in a court filing that "this County remains desperately in need of additional emergency shelter resources, and the Court remains concerned about the County’s ability to meet its promise to provide 'appropriate resources' to individuals at the end of their 30-day motel stays."

Further complicating the situation, Orange County plans to remove approximately 200 homeless people living in the Santa Ana Civic Center starting April 2. Carter has said he expects the county to find shelter for them, too.

Carter has invited the mayors and city managers of Orange County's 34 cities to discuss long-term solutions to the homeless crisis in Orange County on April 3.

Updated 4:25 p.m.: This article was updated with information from Eve Garrow of the ACLU.

This story originally published at 12:45 p.m.