A dozen or so cities in northern Orange County have reached a settlement or are close to doing so in a federal class-action lawsuit seeking to block law enforcement from enforcing anti-camping ordinances, officials told a federal judge Friday.
The big question, however, is what will cities in the southern part of the county do to tackle the homeless problem. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter let his impatience on that issue be known at the end of a lengthy hearing Friday.
“I don’t want to get slow walked,” Carter told county officials and homeless advocates who brought the suit as he pressured them to hurry up and finish the fine points of a proposed settlement.
“I’m going to get to the rainy season with no shelter” in many south county cities, Carter said, adding he’s concerned that if there are only shelters in the northern part of the county, except for the one in Laguna Beach, that it may led to a “disproportionate share” of transients to migrate to services in Santa Ana, Anaheim and neighboring cities.
Santa Ana this week approved a memorandum of understanding with the county for a 600-bed shelter in Santa Ana, Deputy Police Chief Ken Gominsky told Carter. If a proposed location is not available, the city and county will work to find another spot.
In the short term, Santa Ana is readying a 200-bed emergency shelter, which will provide an array of additional services to help transients find more stable living arrangements. Gominsky said the new beds could be “up and running” in 60 to 90 days, though Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido told Carter he will push to get 50 beds available in a month.
“This is welcome news,” Carter said. “This catches me somewhat by surprise.”
The judge said it was “breathtaking” that city officials were angling to provide new beds in 35 to 40 days.
Costa Mesa City Manager Tom Hatch told Carter that state officials rejected the judge’s pitch to use the Fairview Developmental Center as an emergency shelter for the homeless because the facility still serves developmentally disabled clients and that the state views it as “unsafe” to mix the two groups.
But city officials will create a “crisis stabilization unit” that could find a dozen beds for transient suffering with mental health issues. Their goal is to provide a space for 50 more beds to reach their goal of having enough space for at least 60 percent of its population.
That’s the standard that has been at play in the litigation so far. But a recent federal ruling out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has mandated officials provide a bed for every homeless person in their municipality before they are able to clamp down on homeless encampments. Settling the litigation now would help Orange County and its cities avoid having to find capacity for every single homeless person.
Orange City Manager Rick Otto told Carter that the dozen cities he is representing north of the Garden Grove (22) Freeway can provide up to 450 beds.
Two sites are “being pursued” with one “in escrow” to be purchased in 30 days, Otto said. With the other site, “we have a very willing seller,” he added.
The total estimated cost of the two sites would be about $15 million, Otto said.
Carter agreed to wait another 45 days with Costa Mesa and Orange and the 11 other cities to work out final details.
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said his city has “settled” with the plaintiffs.
“All we need to do is put it on paper and document it,” Tait said.
The mayor told Carter the city’s plan is to partner with the Salvation Army, “which is the gold standard” when it comes to the homeless, to expand a site the nonprofit has on Lewis Street in an industrial area that’s far from schools and parks.
Anaheim officials are aiming to have 200 emergency shelter beds available by 90 days, Tait said.
In the longterm, the plan is to expand the Salvation Army facility to offer 400 beds, Tait said.
The mayor said another site might have space for 75 beds “possibly more.”
Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do remarked to the judge that the officials involved in the litigation were “engaging in history” with the settlements.
“I get goosebumps saying that,” he said.
Do envisions that the county’s and cities’ plan would provide a “template” for other municipalities throughout the state for a “system of care” for the homeless.
On Tuesday, the county will consider an agreement with Santa Ana to find an alternative to the Courtyard homeless shelter in the city’s downtown, Do said.
Since October of 2016, the county has helped “transition 550 people in stable housing,” Do said.
Do said county officials are committed to solving the homeless problem not just to settle the litigation “but because it’s the right thing to do.”
The goal is to provide 600 beds for the homeless in Santa Ana.
Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who represents the homeless, told reporters during a break she was “pleasantly surprised” by Friday’s developments.
“You look at the history of Orange County and 30 years of neglect… and we’re seeing commitments of opening things up in 30 days,” Weitzman said. “It really gives us a place to be hopeful.”
Carter prodded county officials to move about 700 transients camped out along the Santa Ana riverbed. Then he authorized city and county officials clear out an encampment next to the Orange County Superior Court building as part of the litigation.
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