A cyclist passes trash from the Santa Ana River homeless camp in Anaheim in February after it was cleared and more than 700 people relocated. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Just a few days ago, Orange County appeared to have a grand plan to deal with its swelling homeless population.
The idea was to move hundreds of people being evicted from camps along the Santa Ana River into motels and eventually into three temporary shelters in Huntington Beach, Irvine and Laguna Niguel, marking the county’s most concrete effort yet to find housing for the unsheltered.
But the plan is now in serious jeopardy after those three communities vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the shelters out. Leaders in Irvine and Laguna Niguel voted to sue the county to block the shelter plan, and local officials want to drop the Huntington Beach location.
Now the county is scrambling to find a solution. Officials have pushed the homeless out of encampments because of complaints from nearby residents. But the county’s existing homeless shelters are already at capacity, and a federal judge has demanded that local governments find places for the evicted people to live.
The biggest wildcard now is what action U.S. District Judge David O. Carter will take if the county cannot find emergency shelter space. Carter has for weeks been trying to broker a plan and has warned officials that he does not want those displaced by the sweeps to end up at the Santa Ana Civic Center, which is already overwhelmed with camps.
“We have a countywide problem of people sleeping in the streets,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University. “If the political system hasn’t solved the problem, the legal system will have to step in.”
Smoller and others said the crumbling plan underscores a basic problem at the center of the homeless crisis: Though everyone seems to want to get the unsheltered off the streets, few areas are willing to have housing in their backyard.
Andrew Do, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said neighborhoods are going to have to make sacrifices in order to solve the problem.
“Every city has its own homeless population and it would be shirking one’s responsibility to deny that and not to offer some help,” Do said. “Cities, when you don’t provide viable alternatives, what do you think the judge will do? The court may have to issue a temporary restraining order that will not allow cities to enforce anti-camping ordinances — and then guess what, the whole county can be like the riverbed.”
Orange County, one of the most affluent areas in the nation, faces special challenges because it has a relatively sparse infrastructure of services and support for those who don’t have homes.
“The county is between a rock and a hard place,” said Mohammed Aly, a lawyer and homeless advocate for the Santa Ana River population. “Every shelter that they named is already full or beyond capacity. And the armories are closing on April 15.”
Like many other parts of California including Los Angeles and San Francisco, Orange County has seen an increase in its homeless population. Many set up camps along the river. Officials started clearing out the camps, prompting a federal lawsuit by homeless advocates.
Carter temporarily halted the evictions and toured the camps. He demanded the county come up with shelter for those being pushed out of the river area.
Earlier this week, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 1 to study a new emergency shelter plan at three locations. The homeless would be sent first to a site in Irvine, which would have a capacity of 200, then to Huntington Beach, which would have a capacity of 100. If more shelter is necessary, they would be taken to property near City Hall in Laguna Niguel, which could serve up to 100 people.
The sites would be used only after current county shelters reach capacity. The housing would be in tent-like structures.
But on Wednesday, Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel withdrew her support for placing a homeless shelter on the site of an abandoned landfill in Huntington Beach.
City officials contend that the site on Gothard Street is contaminated with methane. The county operated the 33-acre facility from 1947 to 1982.
“From what we hear of the proposal, it would be inhumane for the county to relocate up to 100 individuals to create a homeless tent city on that parcel in Huntington Beach,” City Atty. Michael Gates said Tuesday. “It’s right by Central Park. It’s right near where kids play sports and, more importantly, that piece of property has been known as a contaminated site.”
Steel said she has directed county staff “to look for alternative solutions through collaboration with city leaders and local agencies.”
Steel’s communications director, Michelle Cook, said Wednesday that Steel changed her mind about studying the location after she learned that the county would have to install additional gas monitors there and that special building requirements would have to be implemented. Cook said county staff incorrectly identified the site as a feasible option.
Steel, who represents District 2, which includes Huntington Beach, was quiet during much of Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting when the emergency shelters were discussed.
However, before casting her vote, she told her colleagues that she had spoken with Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey to let him know what they were considering.
“It’s going to be a temporary site. We don’t know how long it’s going to take,” she said. “We already let them know, so I’m OK with it.”
Huntington Beach, Laguna Niguel and Irvine all have vowed legal fights to keep the emergency shelter out.
“I am stunned that anyone at the county thought it was a good idea to place 100 homeless individuals in tents that are adjacent to not only a residential neighborhood of young families, but also a day-care center where innocent children play and just a few hundred yards from an elementary school,” said Laguna Niguel Mayor Elaine Gennawey. “This is a public safety tragedy waiting to happen and we will do everything in our power to prevent this from occurring.”
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who cast the dissenting vote on the emergency shelter plan, argued that the county can fashion a remedy to the homeless problem within the current shelter system. He also noted that some homeless people don’t want to stay in shelters.
“I am not going to vote to push this into communities when we have that finite group — about 250 — who have somehow in some way indicated they don’t want services,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors will take up the issue again next week. Do, the board chairman, said that if cities don’t like the proposed shelter sites, they should work together to find locations that are more suitable.
“Why not work with us to find a solution? Don’t just tell us no,” Do said. “What have you done to provide the homeless viable alternatives? The county only has 19 properties. If you don’t want us to put it on X, give us another location.”
To homeless advocates, there’s a certain predictability to what’s happened.
Lili Graham, director of litigation for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, said the county should simply allow the homeless to remain in the river camps until better shelter can be found.
“The riverbed wasn’t perfect, but people gravitated to it because they had a sense of community there. Now we’re seeing what happens when we take people away from an environment they’ve known for a long time and have nowhere to put them,” she said. “Someone in Laguna Niguel, Irvine or Huntington Beach would never understand what some of these men and women go through.”