Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Encampments
Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampments. Image: YouTube

The Irvine City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to direct its legal counsel to immediately commence litigation against Orange County in an attempt to stop a proposal by the Board of Supervisors to create a homeless shelter near the Orange County Great Park.

“How does this solve the problem (of countywide homelessness)?” Mayor Donald P. Wagner asked.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer told the council, “Let’s not lose track that we want to help people. But you can’t do it this way. It’s plain wrong.”

City councils in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel are also weighing legal options to attempt to halt a county plan to erect large tents in those cities to house transients moved from the Santa Ana riverbed.

The Huntington Beach City Council met to discuss the issue Monday night.

The large tent in Huntington Beach would be near Gothard Street and Talbert Avenue, said Michael Gates, an attorney for the city.

“We will consider all legal options to prevent this inhumane relocation of a vulnerable homeless population to a known historically contaminated property, which would be a threat to the health and safety of everyone,” Gates said.

“This property is not zoned for residential for one primary reason — records show this property contains high levels of methane gas, and under state standards, it is uninhabitable (for residential use). Things are developing on this issue, but, suffice it to say, we’ll take legal action if necessary.”

Wagner told City News Service that he views the proposal to put a tent at the Orange County Great Park as payback for his city’s demand to have more say in the county’s “massive commercial development” planned for the site.

“This is the county’s way of saying, `You don’t like that? Then we’ll put homeless tents up there, how do you like that?” Wagner said.

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do disagreed.

“We looked at our county-owned land and chose the sites that had the highest feasibility to provide emergency shelter,” Do said.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the targeted parcels are the only county- owned properties zoned for the homeless. Nelson advocated putting up an emergency shelter on the Irvine site months ago, arguing the county could put beds and showers there until a more permanent solution was found.

Nelson said the county has few options at this point, with a federal judge overseeing the transition of transients from the riverbed into county shelters. It’s possible that the county will have enough beds in its existing shelters and may not have to use the tents, which are technically called “sprung structures.”

“They’re used by a lot of hotels for overflow,” Nelson said. “They don’t look like tents … They’re not canvas with a bunch of poles. These could be dismantled and moved, but they’re a permanent-looking facility.”

As for Huntington Beach’s claim of dangerous methane gas on its property, Nelson said, “So if we get the methane out are we cool? It becomes irrelevant about the methane if they’re against it regardless.”

Nelson pointed out that U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing the litigation on the riverbed transients, invited every city manager and mayor throughout the county to attend a court hearing last Saturday. Huntington Beach did not send a representative.

“We have very limited options to do this quickly,” Nelson said.

Laguna Niguel Mayor Elaine Gennawey issued a statement blasting the county’s plan to erect a tent near the now-shuttered courthouse in that city.

“I am outraged by the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ poorly thought-out decision to move the homeless tents out of the Santa Ana River Trail and move them to three different cities in the county,” Gennawey said.

“This does nothing to alleviate the problem of homelessness that has grown due to the Board of Supervisors’ willful abdication of leadership. They have had years to address this issue and they are the ones who put themselves in this `time crunch’ with an apparent limitation of ill-advised options.”

Gennawey noted the tent in her city would be near a daycare center and that the old courthouse building has issues with mold and asbestos.

Carter is overseeing a settlement in the lawsuit that allowed the county to enforce an anti-camping ordinance on the riverbed in exchange for issuing 30-day motel and food vouchers to the hundreds of homeless who were settled on the riverbed.

Now that those motel stays are due to end for most of those transients, the attorneys representing them have raised concerns about where they are being placed when their motel stays are up.

County officials say they are confident they have enough beds in the various shelters available now, but the tents are being offered to handle any overflow. The first transients who cannot be placed in an existing shelter would be moved to Irvine with a capacity of 200. Any overflow from Irvine would go to Huntington Beach, and then the third option would be Laguna Niguel.

County officials want to use the local shelters and the tents to provide a roof over the heads of transients as they continue to try to help them get into long-term, affordable housing.

—City News Service

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