Transients in the Plaza of the Flags area next to the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana were put on notice Monday they will soon have to move, while a county official warned that a feud over how to address the homelessness in the county is threatening a federal court settlement.
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do called a special board meeting for Monday afternoon to discuss the issue, but only he and Supervisor Shawn Nelson attended.
Supervisors Lisa Bartlett, Michelle Steel and Todd Spitzer skipped the meeting. Spitzer said he received notice of the meeting late Friday and had a prior commitment that he could not reschedule.
Bartlett’s chief of staff, Victor Cao, said the supervisor had a prior commitment to attend a meeting about the Prima Deshecha Landfill.
“Supervisor Bartlett is willing to engage in a discussion about homelessness at a regularly scheduled board meeting and stresses the need for adhering to a public process,” Cao said. “She emphasizes that the board needs better communication with our local communities and city governments. Supervisor Bartlett is standing by her commitment to communication, collaboration, and consent prior to the board discussing any emergency shelter sites. The county of Orange has already committed significant resources to address homelessness.”
Steel did not respond to messages requesting comment.
Do told City News Service before the meeting that he wanted to get a feel for how the board wanted to proceed before a Tuesday federal court hearing, and he wants the transients know what will be happening to them.
“It’s important for the public to know what’s going on,” Do said. “There’s a lot of confusion and uncertainty where we are vis-a-vis the litigation, and just this morning we received demands from the plaintiffs on a more global level.”
Transients who lived in encampments along the Santa Ana riverbed were moved to area motels for 30 days as part of a settlement of the federal lawsuit against the county. Those 30-day motel stays have expired, so the issue in federal court has shifted to the long-term housing of those transients as well as moving the homeless living in tents next to the Santa Ana courthouse.
The transients next to the courthouse were being notified Monday they will soon have to move. Social workers were out at the Plaza of the Flags to provide services to the transients.
“What we’re doing in the civic center is what we did at the riverbed — a soft rollout,” Do said. “We want to do outreach and get people to voluntarily evacuate first before we make it mandatory. We want to move very methodically in a way to lessen the fear and then earn people’s trust and to take advantage of our services. That’s the key. This is not about being a police state. This is about helping people.”
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter will preside over a hearing Tuesday on the litigation. Do said the hearing is “extremely critical because of the lack of progress, to me, at both the county (and) city levels will be a key factor in what Judge Carter may do in the future.”
So far, Carter has acted as a referee as he implored both sides to come to a settlement. But Do said he sensed at a hearing on Friday that the settlement may be at risk, and more formal legal proceedings will be in store if other cities in the county do not welcome emergency shelter beds.
The cities cannot enforce anti-camping or anti-loitering laws “without giving the homeless a viable alternative,” Do said.
But when county officials proposed putting up tents — or sprung structures as they are technically called — in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel for use as overflow shelters, a storm of protests ensued and city officials threatened lawsuits. On Friday, Santa Ana officials responded with threats of lawsuits of their own, saying other cities need to shoulder more of the burden of providing emergency shelter space.
“It’s incumbent on all of us to work together and find a mutually acceptable solution for everybody and not just simply to take this approach, `no, we don’t have any homeless in our city,”’ Do said.
Carter will “hold the cities to task” if they are brought into the litigation, Do said.
“So Judge Carter has done as much as he could to help the county and cities come up with a mutual solution but he is beginning to see the impasse in that effort, and I think now he will treat it like any other litigation and exercise whatever legal power he has to make sure the homeless rights will not be violated,” Do said.
Do blasted fellow Supervisor Todd Spitzer for what he characterized as fear mongering against the emergency shelters in the cities.
The settlement in the federal lawsuit “has been undone in my opinion by one supervisor,” who has been “sowing discord,” Do said.
Do said a shelter in downtown Santa Ana — known as the Courtyard — is within 300 yards of a high school academy and a quarter-mile from the Orange County School of the Arts, so concerns about the proposed homeless tents being near schools ring hollow since Spitzer has praised the Courtyard in the past.
Spitzer, however, took issue with that characterization.
“I know the chairman (Do) is frustrated because his plan to put `low barrier’ tents in Laguna Niguel, Huntington Beach and Irvine fell apart when he was out of town and unable to represent his district,” Spitzer responded. “I agree with Santa Ana, and said so at the board meeting last week, that the entire county has an obligation to address homelessness in the Civic Center.
“But I have emphasized that homelessness is both a public health and a public safety issue and those concerns must be addressed before we push low-barrier tents into any community in Orange County,” he said. “If we have empty beds available in the Courtyard, just across the street from the Civic Center encampment, why haven’t these individuals taken up our offer of an empty bed? We cannot surprise and shock communities and their local elected officials. I will continue to fight to protect all the citizens of Orange County.”
At Monday’s meeting, Nelson railed against political leaders who claim they want to solve the problem of homelessness, but refuse to accept any emergency shelter beds. He said no one is willing to take the political risk of backing an emergency shelter in their city.
“I’m a yes on any solution,” Nelson said, adding he was troubled by emails he received from constituents and friends who complained they paid $1 million for their homes and don’t want homeless people in their city.
Nelson noted he bought a home near the Fullerton homeless shelter years ago and his residence never suffered any downgrade in its value while he lived there.
Nelson also complained that state law precludes cities from opposing homeless shelters if the property is zoned for it, but he said he did not expect state officials to enforce the law. The site in Irvine where county officials proposed a homeless tent is at the Orange County Great Park on 100 acres zoned for a homeless shelter.