NOTES BY NORSE: Santa Ana–a City that was the focus on extensive legal action on behalf of the homeless 25 years ago– has transformed a retrofitted bus terminal downtown into a 24-hour homeless shelter serving hundreds of people. Criticisms by those upset by the overcrowding, harsh treatment, and favoritism are chronicled below in these Voice of Orange County articles (see also the links in the story below). However apparently legal pressure and the (now unlikely) prospect of federal intervention (as happened in the Bell v. Boise case) did prompt a massive if typically off-target expenditure to open up what may be the largest shelter on the West Coast.
Santa Cruz, in contrast, has essentially eliminated year-round shelter services at its Homeless (Lack of) Services Center. Gone areboth the emergency shelter element (which was never more than 50 spaces) & the free meal aspect (shut down completely after June 2015)–actions that prompted the ongoing Freedom Sleeper demonstrations at City Hall. Fences, security guards, and ID cards have replaced the open campus practices of past years–apparently as a sop to NIMBY locals in the Harvey West Neighborhood Association and bigoted community groups like Take Back Santa Cruz. Disabled and ill clients have been literally thrown out on the street–to be subsequently hospitalized like Andy Carcero. Others have periodically set up protest campsites outside demanding fair treatment. Mainstream and “alternative” media, unlike Orange County media, have paid no attention to the abuses at Coral Street and its slow steady descent into a prison-like posture. And for the thousands outside without even the possibility of shelter City Council throws money at police, rangers, and security thugs to “move along” disabled folks out into the rain from under the eaves of buildings. When will the simple realities of the presence of homeless people on the streets finally force authorities to abandon police-state tactics in favor of real resources? No time soon, I fear, without street and legal pressure.
Homeless voices will be speaking out in the annual Homelessness Marathon January 19th (http://news.
It’s more important than ever this year that we stand by groups like the Midnight Mission as we all try to do what’s never really been done before in Orange County.
Offer homeless people a concrete strategy toward recovery.
Yet we will all have to work together to find and finance our way there.
And it won’t be easy.
The core of the County of Orange’s approach is increasingly developing inside a retrofitted bus terminal at the downtown Santa Ana Civic Center, abruptly dubbed the Courtyard Transition Center last year by county officials amidst a charged election campaign for county supervisor that deployed the homeless response center on a 30-day deadline last October.
For many homeless activists at the Civic Center, the bus terminal was a significant achievement.
“We’ve been pushing for something like this, a place to get people off the streets,” said Larry “Smitty” Smith, a homeless activist who lived at the Civic Center in recent years.
“We got exactly what we wanted,” said Smith, who has himself in the last few months moved into permanent housing along with becoming employed with the Ilumination Foundation to work in the civic center area on homeless issues.
Smith credits county officials for being considerate and thorough as they continue to retrofit the space to help homeless.
“We never wrote down we wanted heat, wind blockage, tv, microwaves, full showers, laundry, even women getting their own bathrooms,” Smith said. “We never thought we’d get that.”
The Civic Center, much like the Santa Ana riverbed near the 57 Freeway, became a central gathering point for hundreds of homeless in recent years while county supervisors largely ignored the issue.
Following a strong community outcry last year for a response at the Civic Center, and support for using the bus terminal as a rapid-response center, Supervisor Andrew Do pushed his colleagues on the board to authorize a purchase of the facility for $5 million along with a $1.3 million annual budget.
Do, who took a chance on the project – and ultimately rode publicity for the effort to re-election in November – deserves credit for getting county homeless policy off life-support.
The question in 2017 for all of us is what kind of policy are we moving toward?
So far, the Courtyard has been a clear success.
This past month, when the rains fell on the Civic Center – hundreds had a safe and dry roof to sleep under.
On most nights, nearly 400 people are sleeping at the terminal – four times as many as when it first opened for cold weather last winter, which was run by Mercy House.
Nearly 20 people have already been moved into permanent housing, 18 Courtyard residents have gotten jobs, and more than 100 people are accessing government services at the site each week, according to a civic-center update newsletter sent out by the County of Orange.
The scene at the Courtyard itself is impressive, looking like a community center with numerous tables, a TV viewing center, storage, bike parking, bathrooms, laundry and organized feeding. At the periphery, you can see people getting assistance through government workers and small cubicles for those that are awaiting program placement.
Yet there are real challenges.
As our newsroom has chronicled, there are some activists already raising concerns about how the Courtyard is being managed, with things like the approach toward security triggering questions.
Eve Garrow, a policy analyst with the ACLU that also has worked alongside Smith on civic center homeless issues, sees challenges at the bus terminal and fears county officials are trying to do it on the cheap.
“When I visit the courtyard, I see an extremely disabled population,” Garrow said.
Note that the ACLU currently has a lawsuit pending against the City of Laguna Beach, arguing that the city’s efforts on a shelter are coming up short.
Going cheap can be costly, Garrow warns.
“My litmus test is would you have your grandmother living there?,” Garrow said.
She’s afraid county efforts at the bus terminal could make things worse, especially among those with mental conditions like PTSD, if the site is not properly developed.
“It’s very crowded,” Garrow said of the Courtyard.
I wrote previously that security at the site would be one of the most complex undertakings.
Midnight Mission officials seem to have found a good approach so far, getting more than 400 homeless people to trust enough to use the facility with a low visibility security approach.
It’s important to point out that so far there have been hundreds of people sleeping next to each other at the site for months and there have been no major incidents.
Yet one thing that nonprofits and government agencies don’t handle well is criticism and controversy. It makes them nervous and they tend to dig their heads in, stop returning reporters phone calls.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
This whole process will be delicate. There’s a lot to debate and learn. There will be mistakes, opportunities for course corrections.
Smith puts it in proper perspective.
“Yes, there are 400 people here packed together. Most have mental issues. And yes, there are situations. In a perfect world, they’d (security) catch everything. But the world has never been black and white. It’s always been grey,” Smith said.
The Midnight Mission approach to security has been key to getting buy in, Smith notes.
“By lowering the barriers, letting anybody come in, you changed the whole best practices plan in OC,” Smith said. “That changed it all.”
Smith said the Courtyard has had such great success, there is talk of fast-tracking things at the county’s proposed homeless shelter site on the Anaheim/Orange border, popularly referred to as the Kramer site by officials – for the street where it is located at.
There is reportedly talk of putting into practices the lessons from the Courtyard and housing people right on the warehouse floor.
Yet that potential change is already triggering public questions from local elected officials like Anaheim City Councilwoman Kris Murray, who came forward to raise such questions at a county supervisors’ meeting last month.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who drove the political deals that ushered in the operations plan for the Kramer site, called on county leaders to publicly update where plans are.
Some fear the Kramer site could sit empty because of the deals that made it politically palatable.
“Read the operation plan for Kramer, nobody will use that,” Smith said. “People will not give up their rights. What they don’t want they do is go through bullshit to get off the street.”
These are all important, tough questions, which underscores the fact that this should all be a public process, with periodic public updates. That makes for better policy – even if public meetings go a little longer and are a bit more passionate.
David Washburn/Voice of OC
Nearly two months since its debut, the new homeless shelter that Orange County runs out of an abandoned bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana is getting mixed reviews from the people it serves and homeless advocates.
On one hand, the shelter, which county officials have dubbed the “Courtyard,” is providing a safe resting place for hundreds of people each night, with the population on some nights reaching well over 400.
And beyond being a place for homeless people to sleep, shower, do laundry and store their belongings, it has become a hub that connects people to services like medical clinics, veterans’ benefits and legal aid.
“I think we’ve exceeded a lot of people’s expectations – even mine – with regards to our ability to gain the trust of a population who’s been outside for a number of years,” said Susan Price, the county’s homeless services coordinator. “To get up over 300 [people sleeping there each night] in 30 days is pretty amazing.”
The shelter and its staff have helped some homeless people reunite with their families, treat drug and alcohol addiction, and obtain housing, according to county officials.
And in addition to what its done for homeless people, Jennifer Muir, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA), said the Courtyard is a step in the right direction toward making the Civic Center a safer place to work.
“It’s great that the shelter got opened so quickly and that it seems to be providing a space for people who have been living in the Civic Center to go,” said Muir, who represents most of the county’s 20,000 employees. “Now is the time for the camping laws to be enforced in the Civic Center area because it’s unsafe for the public…and it’s unsafe for the workers.”
But problems have also emerged at the shelter, including complaints about how the staff from The Midnight Mission, the nonprofit group hired by the county to run the shelter, interacts with the homeless people they serve.
Some complain that the staff, who also serve as security guards, get inappropriately upset at homeless people, many of whom have mental illnesses. One guard swatted a homeless man’s phone as he was taking video on a sidewalk, calling him a “bitch” and “another nut” before a supervisor intervened, according to a video of the exchange.
Others have described the staff ignoring the pleas of a 17-year-old homeless girl who was trying to join her family in the shelter late one night.
Progress and Concern
Significantly reducing the homeless population at the county’s Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana was one of the main goals officials cited when they opened the shelter. Progress has been made on that front, with county surveys showing a drop of homeless people in the Civic Center during the day from 461 people before the shelter to a little under 200 as of earlier this month. But officials acknowledge that much work remains.
“Certain sections [of the Civic Center] look as crowded as they’ve ever looked, unfortunately,” said Brad Fieldhouse, whose nonprofit group City Net was hired by the county to coordinate volunteers, during a meeting with providers.
Meanwhile, hospitals and organizations from other parts of the county are routinely dropping people off at the new shelter, which has been stretched past capacity “We’ve got local hospitals discharging people to the Courtyard, which is very challenging, and in many cases likely not an appropriate discharge…for people with significant medical issues,” Price said.
Much of the capacity problem will likely be relieved, albeit temporarily, next Monday when an extra 400 beds come online in Santa Ana and Fullerton at the county’s cold-weather armory shelters. Those shelters will be open until April. But even if the Courtyard succeeds in reducing the Civic Center population, county officials still appear to be a long way from their ultimate goal of finding people permanent housing. “It gives somebody immediate shelter, but now the really hard work” needs to happen, said Paul Leon, president and CEO of the Illumination Foundation, which has been working with the county to provide housing and support services for homeless people.
While 3,058 single men and women were homeless during last year’s point-in-time count, there are just 1,624 rapid re-housing and permanent supportive housing beds for them, according to county figures.
“We definitely want to shift our focus to how the community can help us shelter and house this population,” said Price. Since the new shelter opened, about 15 people have been referred into housing, she said.
Her bosses on the Board of Supervisors – who oversee county policy and budgets – so far haven’t shown interest in figuring out how to fund a significant expansion of affordable housing for the homeless, whether that’s through public funds, outside fundraising, or a mixture of both.
One manifestation of the lack of housing options, advocates say, is the drop-offs at the shelter by hospitals and other health providers. Many drug rehab centers and mental health providers across Orange County are now sending people to the Courtyard, according to Dwight Smith, a longtime advocate and volunteer for Orange County’s homeless. “Now at last the taxpayers will see what social workers have always seen – there’s no point to being a social worker if there’s no place to refer anybody, because our mental health budget is deplorable,” Smith said.
Issues With Midnight Mission
Beyond the long-term housing issue, Smith and others are seeing more immediate problems with how Midnight Mission has been operating the Courtyard. Smith, who volunteers his time serving food at the shelter, and said many of the Midnight Mission staff, who also serve as security guards, don’t know how to properly deal with people who have mental illnesses, who are a large portion of the homeless population. “I can’t think of a worse vendor, because clearly those people don’t have a whole lot of experience in dealing with hungry, lonely, angry people,” Smith said. He said two of the staffers have told him they have felony convictions, with one saying he was a former gang member. And Smith said he was told that when one of the homeless people got in an argument with a security guard, the guard “took off his vest and kicked him in the head.”
Mike Arnold, CEO and president of Midnight Mission, disputed such accounts, saying violence is coming from homeless people against his staff. “We’re really trying to make this as welcoming, as friendly, as safe as we possibly can. And we’re balancing things with very sick people,” he said.As for the guards’ backgrounds, some of them are graduates of a Midnight Mission substance abuse program in Los Angeles, where people can live and work for the organization after graduating from the program. Some may have felony convictions, Arnold said, “but I can tell you this – they are all really good people” who turned their lives around and “really understand the issue” of homelessness because they themselves have some of the same issue
Advocates, meanwhile, have pointed to specific incidents they say underlie their concerns about staffIn one video, a homeless man and activist, Igmar Rodas, is filming on a public sidewalk in front of the shelter when a guard grabs at his camera and tells him to leave the area. [https://www.youtube.com/
Also concerning to advocates was the situation involving a 17-year-old girl who was denied access to the shelter. Her father, Miguel Hurtado – who is also homeless – says she arrived after 10 p.m. to sleep at the shelter, which had been promoted as a 24-hour-a-day facility, but found the door locked. She tried to get the guards’ attention by shouting, to no avail, Hurtado told Rodas in a video interview. “They wouldn’t even pay attention. They ignored it, like totally ignored it, like they didn’t even care,” Hurtado said of the shelter staff. “My daughter was yelling and screaming, and nobody answered the damn door.” Arnold said the incident was a mistake on the second or third night of the shelter being open, when there was a shift change among staff and no one indicated to the staff on shift that Hurtado’s daughter would be coming in later. “That was an isolated event that was an opening hiccup. It was unfortunate,” he said, adding that policies were developed to ensure that something like that “never happens again.”
There have also been reports that officials at the shelter, which is where food and bathrooms have been relocated, have made some people wait for food and other services based on a badge system. Early last week, homeless residents staying the night were issued orange “Resident” badges. Those who didn’t have badges went to the shelter the next day for food, bathrooms or showers were told by staff they had to wait for people with badges to go first, according to interviews conducted by Rodas, a homeless man and activist. One man said that when he tried to get a badge, he was told they weren’t being handed out.
Price confirmed last week that a badge system was in the works, but said food and other services are still open to everyone during the day. Asked if she disputes accounts that access was being restricted last week based on badges, Price said she was “unable to confirm or speculate.”Additionally, several volunteers who have long served food in the Civic Center are upset about being told by police to move their feeding into the shelter. Some have said they’ve been threatened with arrest if they continue feeding in the Civic Center. A video by Rodas shows officers acknowledging they’ve been telling food providers to move to the shelter, and that they could enforce county health codes if providers don’t move.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.