A federal judge told Orange County officials Thursday that he would give them more time to help get transients camped out near the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana into shelters.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter had been pushing county officials to begin moving the transients out, starting April 2, but he backed off after a backlash from the public regarding a plan to erect tentlike structures in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.
Carter has allowed Santa Ana to join the litigation that led to a settlement that had the county remove a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed while housing the transients in area motels for 30-day stays. Those motel vouchers are due to run out for most of them, and last night 81 more were moved out of motels into appropriate shelters, Carter said.
As Carter was pushing county officials to also turn their attention to doing the same with transients camped out on the Plaza of the Flags next to the Civic Center courthouse, they proposed erecting the large tents as temporary shelter in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.
That move prompted officials in those cities to threaten lawsuits.
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who voted to approve the tents, told Carter that she came under siege at an emergency Laguna Niguel City Council meeting this week.
Bartlett initially voted against the measure, but changed her mind when Supervisor Shawn Nelson opted to abstain, creating a 2-2 deadlock, to force Supervisor Todd Spitzer to explain to Carter why he objected to the tents. She said she felt the need for the temporary shelter was an emergency and voted yes, which led Nelson to also vote yes.
Spitzer, meanwhile, has gone to the city councils in each city and voiced his opposition to the tents known as sprung structures.
Bartlett asked Carter to let the county take Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel off the list, or all three cities, and trust that the county would have enough beds for the transients.
The enclosed tent in Irvine would house 200, while those in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel would house 100 each. First, the overflow from existing county shelters would go to Irvine, and then Huntington Beach and then Laguna Niguel.
Huntington Beach officials argued that the property in their city has issues with methane gas, while Laguna Niguel officials said the site in their city is across the street from a daycare center and next to a now-shuttered courthouse which, according to Bartlett, is “littered with mold and asbestos.”
Bartlett also proposed to Carter that Irvine could be set up to accommodate 400 transients while letting Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel off the hook.
Spitzer also said he was “begging” Carter for more time to figure out how to house the transients from Santa Ana’s Civic Center.
“We can’t absorb that much inventory and supply … without tearing apart this county,” Spitzer said.
Nelson said no matter where the county sets up a “low-threshold shelter,” neighbors will oppose it. Nelson had pushed for a “showers and beds” temporary shelter at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine last year, but it fell flat with his colleagues.
Nelson noted that the Irvine site is the only county-owned property that is zoned for a homeless shelter.
“We need basic, triage, low-threshold shelter beds,” Nelson said, adding that no matter where they are proposed it is a political “third rail.”
“Any community you ask to digest that problem will erupt,” he said.
Carter praised county officials and the advocates for the riverbed transients for moving the homeless out of the encampments with a minimum of trouble.
Carter estimated officials managed to get “700 people off the streets. That’s incredible.”
The judge noted “a lot of these people got jobs,” and many more were applying for work.
“You’ve achieved almost the impossible,” Carter said.
Carter refused to back down from an April 2 deadline to begin the process of moving transients out of the Civic Center in Santa Ana, but he said he would be less aggressive about pushing that process forward.
“Instead of two days as I was demanding, let’s take longer,” Carter said. “Maybe a week, maybe two weeks.”
The judge said he may also push to “expand” the area where officials attempt to help the homeless, including the “retail area” in downtown Santa Ana.
Carter told Bartlett that he would not issue any sort of order regarding where the county places emergency shelters. He said he would leave it up to the county board, which meets next on Tuesday.
Carter also will invite representatives from cities throughout the county to an April 3 hearing to get their input on how to tackle the housing of the transients in Santa Ana.
The judge agreed with Nelson that the issue of public opposition to any shelter will crop up no matter what officials do.
“I don’t see how we get past the NIMBY effect again,” Carter said.