A federal judge overseeing homeless-related lawsuits in Orange County prodded local, state and county officials Tuesday to shake more money loose to provide services and shelters for the area’s transients as he praised progress that has been made since the litigation began last year.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter had been expected to consider a lawsuit filed in February adding several south county cities and Orange County to the litigation, but attorneys for homeless advocates said they haven’t formally served the defendants yet, cutting off any discussion for now.
Attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel said they would serve Irvine, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and Aliso Viejo, as well as the county, soon. Carter said he assumed the cities would have been served by now, so he couldn’t discuss the litigation but invited the cities to get involved in settlement talks to avoid years of expected litigation.
“If you’re going to settle, the door’s wide open,” Carter told attorney Stephen Larson, a former federal judge, who is representing Irvine.
Much of the discussion at the four-hour hearing revolved around progress that has been made on various projects in the northern part of the county, as well as obstacles that remain in setting up more shelter space.
CalOptima Board Chairman Paul Yost and the agency’s CEO, Michael Schrader, told Carter that the board would consider allocating $75 million over the next three years to address homeless services. Carter asked them to bump up the allocation to $100 million.
CalOptima’s staff has been pushing back on the board’s wishes to spend some of its funding on homeless services, arguing that its Medicaid funds can only be used on its members signed up for the health insurance the agency provides to the county’s needy. The staff also believes the agency’s funding cannot be used on capital projects like shelters.
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, who is a member of the CalOptima board, said since the agency has not provided a legal opinion on the issues, board members consulted with outside counsel, which reported the agency has more flexibility than staff believes in spending.
In a statement to the court, Do said the proposal now, which ranges between $60 million to $100 million in “new initiatives,” was “made with no guidance other than `Medi-Cal services for current members’ and no clear legal guidelines. I question why there would be a cap for services, no matter the amount, if services is for our members. Medicaid regulations do not allow for us to cap services to our members. Simply allocating dollars to the homeless crisis with no plan, especially in light of the overly restrictive interpretation of Medicaid regulations by CalOptima’s staff and counsel, is illusory at best. This crisis does not need more headlines; it needs solutions now, not six months to a year from now.”
Carter noted that San Diego County applied for $125 million in No Place Like Home state funding for the homeless while Orange County asked for $13 million.
The judge was told that local nonprofits have not applied for the funding at the rates elsewhere in the state.
“I can assure you the county is going after every dollar available,” Orange County Board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett said.
Carter replied, “You’re the gateway to this money,” and prodded the county to seek more funding.
Carter also complained about the bureaucratic barriers to utilizing the Fairview Development Center in Costa Mesa, which serves patients with developmental and intellectual disabilities. He chided the stakeholders in the homeless litigation to lobby Gov. Gavin Newsom to free up the facility, which is expected to be closed in two years, for the area’s homeless population.
“Why doesn’t someone get the phone and see if Gavin will get on the phone with us,” Carter said. “Let’s see if he’s serious about this.”
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, told the judge she has proposed legislation to use Fairview for the area’s homeless.
The judge also called on railroad owners in the area to clean up debris left behind by transients camping on their property. He said because the railroad property is not regularly patrolled, it has drawn the homeless and has become an eyesore for the community.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said the city had filed a lawsuit against a railroad company over the issue and expects to try to recruit other cities to join. But City Attorney Sonia Carvalho later told City News Service that the city has “initiated an abatement action and is prepared to file a lawsuit if the (Union Pacific) railroad continues to allow dangerous conditions to exist on its property.”
Officials at Tuesday’s hearing did not discuss a lawsuit filed by homeless advocates alleging the county is wrongly denying cash to transients from the General Relief assistance program. The program provides temporary cash for the needy when they fail to qualify for other federal or state programs.
The money from General Relief is to be paid back when the recipient receives Supplemental Security Income, a process that can take years, the attorneys argue in the lawsuit, which includes three residents who found shelter after the county began cooperating in the federal case before Carter.
The lawsuit alleges that the county has “again implemented policies and practices that deny and terminate aid to the most vulnerable populations based on improper grounds.” They argue that in 2012, the county settled a class-action lawsuit on how it administered the General Relief program from August 2010 to December 2012. That settlement allowed for the repayment of the General Relief funds, but “only after the GR recipient met their basic support needs,” according to the current lawsuit.
The homeless advocates allege that the county has returned to “unlawful denials of GR, deterring applicants from filing appeals, constructively blocking the aid paid pending an appeal of the denial, issuing retroactively dated termination notices, and ensuring that the lengthy appeal hearing process leaves vulnerable individuals without benefits or other assistance for months before determinations are made.”
The Orange County Social Service Agency, for example, “now counts subsidized housing of any type as `in-kind income,’ without limit,” the lawsuit alleges. “As a consequence, formerly homeless individuals are forced to choose between a roof over their head and food in their belly.”
County officials have not yet responded publicly to the claims in the lawsuit.
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