Orange County still awaiting new homeless shelter sites

File photo: County workers clear and raze a homeless encampment beside the Santa Ana River on February 20, 2018 in Anaheim, California.
File photo: County workers clear and raze a homeless encampment beside the Santa Ana River on February 20, 2018 in Anaheim, California.

Those following Orange County’s homeless saga have mostly heard about a series of epic fails in recent weeks. First, the county board of supervisors endorsed and then — after a major backlash from residents and city leaders — reversed a plan to set up emergency homeless shelters in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel. 

Then they voted down an alternate plan, proposed by leaders of south Orange County cities, to open a shelter in a remote, former school site that currently hosts a library and day-care center. 

Despite the setbacks, people on both sides of a federal lawsuits that started this recent effort to address homelessness in OC say progress is being made. 

"I do believe that this county …. has recognized that it can no longer avoid putting up these emergency shelters,” said Brooke Weitzman, one of the lawyers for homeless plaintiffs who were evicted from homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River in January.

County Supervisor Andrew Do also said he sees progress toward long-term solutions to providing emergency shelter and long-term housing for the homeless.

“For the first time, we have a countywide conversation,” Do said. “We still have NIMBYism. There’s still a lot of people that say, ‘Oh yeah, we want to have a solution, but we don’t know where to put it.’ But at least they’re talking.” 

The search for emergency shelter sites was prompted earlier this year by a threat from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing several lawsuits filed by advocates for the homeless over the lack of shelter and services for hundreds of people living in encampments in central Orange County. Carter told the county and OC cities in March and April that they needed to create more emergency shelter space or risk forfeiting their right to kick homeless people out of parks and other public places. 

Last week, the city of Santa Ana added pressure by filing its own legal complaint, attached to Weitzman’s lawsuit, against all 33 other cities in Orange County for allegedly failing to pitch in to address homelessness. The city and Judge Carter have accused other OC cities of dumping homeless people in Santa Ana and other central OC cities. 

Meanwhile, lawyers for homeless plaintiffs report mixed results on the county’s effort to provide shelter and supportive services for people evicted from homeless encampments. Those services include treatment for mental health issues and substance abuse. 

“The significant majority are doing well,” said Weitzman, but then added, “There are certainly ongoing problems.” 

To begin with, less than half of the more than 1,000 homeless people who had been living along the Santa Ana riverbed and in the Santa Ana Civic Center accepted county placement into a shelter or other type of housing. Most of the rest are likely still living on the streets. 

Weitzman and Lili Graham, a lawyer for disabled homeless clients, both said some homeless people who had accepted help, particularly those with mental health issues, had not received appropriate care. 

“We have a series of mixed results,” Graham said. "We have some clients who have found stability, and we have some clients who, the services provided by the county did not address their disabilities or past trauma. So they’ve exited the shelters and are back on the streets.”

County supervisor Do defended the county’s work saying missteps had been minor. 

While lawyers for the homeless work to find individual solutions for their clients, the search for more emergency shelter sites is still on. Do said cities in the northern and central part of OC were close to identifying several sites. 

Asked how local leaders will combat potential protests from neighbors near those sites, Do said: “Political courage. Some people have it, and some people don’t."