In the face of vehement opposition from cities, Orange County supervisors Tuesday scrapped a plan to erect large tents in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel to temporarily house transients from Santa Ana and the Santa Ana riverbed.
The supervisors, with Chairman Andrew Do absent, also voted unanimously to spend $70.5 million on services for mentally ill transients.
The board on March 19 agreed to consider the placement of “sprung structures,” which are large tents hotels often use to handle overflow from ballrooms, as temporary homeless shelters. The supervisors directed its staff to research the logistics and then work with officials in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.
The proposal, however, never got off the ground, with residents and city leaders erupting with outrage and threatening litigation. An overflow crowd descended on the board meeting Tuesday, many chanting and waving signs decrying the proposed tent shelters. Elected officials and residents also hurled criticism at the board over the tent proposal.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, urged the county to appeal any orders from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter pushing for the relocation of transients from the riverbed and the Plaza of the Flags area next to the Central Justice Center courthouse in Santa Ana.
Rohrabacher even opposed the county spending $70.5 million of its grant money to help provide shelter and services for mentally ill transients.
“This is exactly the wrong thing to do,” Rohrabacher said. “They need to make decisions in their lives, and by feeding them and giving them housing you’re taking away the pressure on them to make good decisions in their lives. … We should be taking (Carter’s) orders and appealing it all the way up to the Supreme Court.”
The congressman added, “We have to first take care of those human beings who have made the right decisions.”
Laguna Niguel City Councilman Fred Minagar said he was “compassionate to the plight of the homeless,” but added, “We pay plenty of taxes for the federal, state and county governments to take care of them in a humane fashion.”
Councilwoman Laurie Davies told the supervisors, “Safety is our number one priority.”
She said she opposed putting up a temporary shelter in Laguna Niguel because it is “steps from a daycare center … and minutes from an elementary school.”
Davies accused the county of having “years to address this issue … and all you need to do is look out the doors of this building and see the county has turned a blind eye to this problem.”
Laguna Niguel Mayor Pro Tem John Mark Jennings criticized the supervisors for making the earlier decision “with no input from our community.”
“This decision was rudderless and without an underlying principle under it, and it was done in haste. Hopefully we’ve learned a lesson. We’re willing to do our part, but we ask to do it with cooperation,” Jennings said.
Santa Ana City Manager Raul Godinez said his city has been shouldering an “inequitable burden” for many years and it is “crucial each city help to resolve this issue. … For decades, Santa Ana has done more than its fair share. … It is our sincere hope other communities will contribute so there’s an equal distribution.”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who chaired the meeting with Do absent, drew jeers when he said the county has done far more to address the problem of homelessness than many of its neighbors.
“This is probably managed better than any other county around,” Nelson said. “L.A. County has approximately 60,000 homeless on the streets and they’re not even four times our size. We don’t have their problems.”
Nelson responded to the boos, saying, “Folks, relax, I know it’s hard to hear someone who doesn’t believe your narrative.”
Nelson noted that Santa Ana and Fullerton — with their armories — provided the only local homeless shelters for years.
“We need emergency shelter beds and some communities have been shouldering that burden for decades,” Nelson said. “I care about everybody’s kids. I assume you all do as well. But let’s be honest here. Our challenge as we get down to the tip of the spear, no one wants to have or host this difficult population. One of the challenges we’ll have is who is willing to step up.”
On April 3, Carter will hold another court hearing to get an update on the relocation of transients from the riverbed. The judge has invited officials from area cities to join the hearing to discuss solutions.
County officials have said they are confident they have enough beds to handle the transients from the riverbed as their county-issued 30-day motel vouchers expire. But to satisfy Carter, who is overseeing litigation against the county regarding the relocation, they pledged to pursue the large tents in the three cities in case they lacked enough beds.
County CEO Frank Kim told supervisors the transition of transients from the motels should be completed by Wednesday.
The plan was to put 200 beds in Irvine with 100 each set aside in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel. If the beds were filled in Irvine then officials would turn to Huntington Beach and then to Laguna Niguel.
But officials in Huntington Beach complained the property being eyed for the tent in their city is plagued with methane gas issues, and Laguna Niguel officials said the plot of land under consideration in that city is next to the now-shuttered Orange County Superior Courthouse, which has issues with asbestos and mold.
The urgency to find additional beds came from Carter’s desire to see a similar relocation of transients from the Plaza of the Flags area next to the Santa Ana courthouse as there was a month ago from the Santa Ana Riverbed. But Carter told supervisors at a court hearing last week he would tap the brakes on that plan to make sure officials have enough beds for the 170 or so transients there.
Nelson has long championed putting up a temporary shelter at the Orange County Great Park because Irvine officials have zoned it for the homeless. The Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel sites are not yet zoned for the homeless.
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett lamented how the March 19 vote was taken.
“It’s very clear we had a hasty decision and a process we need to fix,” Bartlett said. “We kind of have to hit the reset button.”
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who railed against the sprung structures, told residents at the meeting “to remain vigilant and watch every single thing we do. … Tents don’t belong in any community and we have a responsibility to Santa Ana. It’s not their burden to shoulder.”
Spitzer drew the ire of some homeless advocates who accused him of “fear mongering” when he raised the issue of sex offenders in area shelters.
One woman at the meeting shouted “shame on you” to Spitzer.
“Look who pays Todd Spitzer — the prison lobby,” the woman said.
Spitzer claimed there were three convicted sex offenders in Santa Ana’s civic center encampment “until Friday, but because of my call they got moved.”
Spitzer said he was “extremely concerned” when he heard of a possible sexual assault in the civic center.
“So I’ve asked parole (officials) to do polygraph exams of those three to see if they’re somehow connected” to the crime, Spitzer said.