Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Encampments
Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampments prior to the clearing out earlier this year. Image: YouTube

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to spend $70.5 million of money earmarked for the mentally ill to provide beds for transients while also approving a plan to erect tents to provide temporary shelter for the homeless in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.

The vote followed a special hearing convened Saturday by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter as he pressures county officials and homeless advocates to continue to address issues related to moving hundreds of transients from the Santa Ana riverbed in Anaheim. Many of those transients are now coming to the end of their 30-day motel vouchers issued by the county.

The supervisors called a special meeting Monday morning and then walked to Carter’s courtroom to update him before returning to the county hall to vote on the $70.5 million plan to build a new facility or renovate existing facilities for mentally ill transients.

The money was available to the county and left unspent because officials did not realize they could use it to help the transients on the riverbed. Carter had earlier accused county officials of “chipmunking” money from federal and state grants.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said he was “embarrassed” that Carter’s law clerks showed that the county money could be used on the mentally ill transients.

“I’m embarrassed because I’ve been led to believe until today that we were doing everything in our power,” Spitzer said. “Now we find out today, and it was confirmed, that we have $185 million from 2016-17 that we didn’t spend. Every one of these board members had the same information I had, that up until today we didn’t know those dollars were available.”

If the county had spent those available funds, “we wouldn’t be here today, so now we’re saying we’re going to put up tents,” Spitzer said.

The board also approved a plan to erect tents in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel to collectively house up to 400 people. The tents are a backup plan in case the county does not have enough beds at its existing shelters.

If there is overflow, the transients would be taken to Irvine, which would have a capacity of 200, and then if that facility is filled, officials will take transients to Huntington Beach and then Laguna Niguel, which would have a capacity of 100.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told Carter on Monday that the county has also come up with a plan to provide beds for couples. Attorneys for the homeless who sued the county to stop its plan to move transients off the riverbed had provided multiple examples of couples who needed to stay together and did not wish to be separated as they were sheltered.

Do also told Carter he was moved by news of a family of four dying in a van they were sleeping in last week in Garden Grove. He pledged to have staff “do more outreach to advise people living in their cars” of what services are available.

Thirty of the transients from the riverbed were being notified Monday that their motel stays were concluding. Attorneys for the homeless got county officials to pledge to notify the lawyers 48 hours in advance if any of their clients are going to be moved out of a motel so their attorneys can be sure that the shelter that has been selected for them is appropriate.

“I’m going to be here until midnight, so if you have a problem just come down and see me,” Carter told both sides as the supervisors returned to their board meeting.

Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who represents the homeless, said she has seen multiple success stories from her clients who had motel stays. She said she saw one client on Saturday and hardly recognized him.

Tempers flared in the afternoon session of the supervisors when Supervisor Lisa Bartlett complained that the tent to be erected in her district would be across the street from a preschool.

Spitzer blasted Bartlett for not “stepping up” as he said his district has done in making room for the homeless. Bartlett blasted back that her district was “on the leading edge” of the issue when Laguna Beach opened a year-round shelter several years ago. She added beds are available for the homeless in San Clemente and Dana Point, “which is my home city.”

Spitzer advocated “pushing back” on Carter, saying the county should not have to put up any tents when the county has enough beds to house the riverbed transients. He also called the tents an “inhumane” solution to the problem.

Spitzer noted the county spent $35 million on a new shelter for stray animals, “and we are taking better care of our animals than we are the homeless in the county.”

“To think we have to create a bed for every single person we moved off the riverbed is ludicrous,” he said, claiming 100 “refused services,” another 150 “missed their appointments” with a social worker.

“We have 571 beds delineated this morning and that’s what we should tell the judge,” Spitzer said.

“We shouldn’t erect one tent… They’re inhumane… What we should be saying is, your honor, with all due respect, we’re going to put them into beds that are appropriate for their care… That I have to create ghost beds, potentially vacant beds, that’s ludicrous and Judge Carter should understand that.”

The plan for the tents initially appeared to win approval on a 3-2 vote with Bartlett and Spitzer dissenting until Supervisor Shawn Nelson said he planned to abstain until Spitzer confronted Carter with his concerns.

Nelson accused Spitzer of “feigned outrage” to “bail himself out” with his constituents.

“You had unlimited access to this guy” on Monday, Nelson told Spitzer. “You want to tell him to go to hell then do it… These aren’t all ghost beds.”

That prompted Bartlett to change her vote to yes.

“We need to start building up a system of care,” Bartlett said. “I have grave concerns…. but it’s important to move forward with something today.”

Nelson then changed his vote to “yes,” as well.

Nelson was similarly angered by Spitzer’s opposition to sex offenders in any of the facilities.

“I don’t know who would want a sex offender anywhere in the county let alone in an individual city,” Nelson said. “But the Courtyard (shelter in Santa  Ana) will be full soon and it’s the type of facility we need more of… We don’t have any other choices that I’m aware of and we’re certainly doing it on a short window. We can’t go on a site search and we don’t have a lot of time.”

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner said city council members will hold a special closed-door meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the county’s plan to erect a tent for the homeless in Irvine.

Wagner criticized the plan to put the transients on 100 acres the county owns near the Orange County Great Park.

“We’re certainly prepared to do what we can to help, but they’re not going to import it to Irvine and say problem solved,” Wagner said.

Wagner questioned how the makeshift shelter addresses the problem.

“It just moves it to Irvine,” he said.

–City News Service

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