A federal judge who oversees disputes in settlement governing homeless shelters in Orange County pushed local officials Friday to find a solution for walk-up facilities for transients for the fall and winter.

“It’s just inhumane to have people sit in the rain,” U.S. District Judge David O. Carter told officials from the county and Santa Ana in an afternoon hearing. “I can’t let people sleep out in the rain because of a squabble between the county and city.”

Carter emphasized that he wants to establish “low-barrier, walk-up” shelters for the cold-weather months in the southern, central and northern parts of the county.

Last Friday, Carter ruled the county’s plan for a cold-weather shelter this winter at a Salvation Army facility in Santa Ana was unnecessary because he determined there were 150 beds currently available.

Carter, however, had a change of heart and scheduled a hearing for this Friday to continue discussing the matter. But as of Thursday night, officials were told Salvation Army was backing out of the deal.

Santa Ana officials had sued the Salvation Army in Orange County Superior Court to seek a temporary restraining order blocking the county’s plan to shelter transients at the nonprofit’s facility at 818 E. 3rd St. City officials said there were “land use restrictions” that prevented use of the site for the county shelter.

The major problem is that while there are county and city shelters in Santa Ana, transients must be referred to them for admittance. Carter wants a facility that the homeless can just show up to and get out of the inclement weather.

Santa Ana officials said they would lower their admittance restrictions at one facility, opening up enough beds to handle short-term sheltering. Carter prodded county officials to call a meeting soon of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to approve of doing the same at its facility in the city.

Santa Ana officials have objected to the Salvation Army facility accepting the county’s project because they say the city has already done enough to provide beds for the homeless and that it was time for other cities, particularly the south county cities, to accept some responsibility.

Santa Ana and the county have a memorandum of understanding under the settlement of the homeless lawsuit that a cold weather shelter can be opened if there is an emergency. If the city and county cannot agree on the conditions that warrant opening of a shelter than it is up to Carter to referee the dispute.

County officials put out a request for proposals for a winter shelter in July, but none of the usual contractors put in a bid. The contractors told officials that it was difficult to hire labor for a four-month project and the profit margins are scant. So county officials turned to the Salvation Army, which provides shelter for men only in a smaller program, but were willing to expand the service.

“We have an existing settlement MOU with the city of Santa Ana and the county attempted to operate a cold weather shelter,” Orange County CEO Frank Kim told City News Service.

Santa Ana “disputed the conditions requiring the establishment of a shelter program in the city. We have met and conferred and we did not come to a resolution and in the MOU disputes they will be resolved by Judge Carter and we’re in that process.”

Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do said, “If a time comes when we find there is an emergency it will take the county time — at least weeks if not months — to line up a facility and enter into a contract with a provider to run that shelter.”

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who is running for the District 2 seat on the Board of Supervisors, told City News Service earlier this week, “My position is we’re not opposed to a cold-weather shelter. We agree with the court that pursuant to a grand jury report that was drafted and circulated earlier these additional shelter spaces should be done regionally and not concentrated in one city. We’re encouraged that Judge Carter understands this should be a more shared responsibility.”

Carter prodded Kim to use the Joplin Youth Center in Trabuco Canyon for the winter because it is county owned. But it is a difficult to access location, Kim noted. The facility was used to house people during the pandemic, and because it is a county facility, “You don’t have to deal with Nimbyism,” Carter said.

Carter acknowledged that county officials have met with “a lot of resistance traditionally” from south county cities whenever attempting to locate a shelter there.

Laguna Beach has a shelter, but it fills up quickly during a storm and he said some transients are sent by Uber to Santa Ana, “which drives Santa Ana berserk.”

Sarmiento said he thought Carter’s comments last Friday about seeking to have south county cities shoulder more of the load were “thoughtful.”

“As a city that has stepped up and complied with its responsibilities we want to ensure other cities do the same,” Sarmiento said. “It is going to take the court for the county to make some decisions that these resources are … not concentrated in a city like Santa Ana that already has challenges.

“The optics are really not good. You place all of these obligations on a low-income community, a community of color, a marginalized community. It can’t be Santa Ana shouldering this burden alone.”

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