Orange County Bows to Pressure, Abandons Plans to House Homeless

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A line of homeless people at the Santa Ana riverbed wait to get connected with a motel room or shelter on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Jill Replogle/KPCC)

At an emotional and jampacked meeting Tuesday, Orange County supervisors voted to reverse course on a homeless housing plan they passed just last week.

The plan would have paved the way for potential homeless housing in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, but Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Michelle Steel announced they no longer supported it, citing public safety and health.

All three cities had threatened legal action over the measure. And in Irvine, where the plan called for an emergency shelter with beds for 200 people on a piece of county land zoned for homeless housing, hundreds of residents turned out to protest.

After hours of combative comment from politicians, homeless advocates and residents on Tuesday, the board voted 4-0 to rescind last week's action. Chairman Andrew Do was not present.

The Objections

"No one wants to have or host this difficult population," Supervisor Shawn Nelson said. "Who's willing to step up?"

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The hearing room in Santa Ana was at capacity with more than 200 people, with hundreds more protesting outside the event, including both those opposed to the housing sites and in support of more housing for the homeless in Orange County.

The mayors of Irvine and Laguna Niguel, two of the cities slated for possible homeless housing under the old plan, spoke forcefully in support of scraping the measure.

"This plan needs to be killed now," Laguna Niguel Mayor Elaine Gennawey said, citing her concerns about public safety.

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner spoke against the site approved in his city.

"It is not a place fit for human habitation," he told the board, saying chemical contamination and a lack of infrastructure such as running water make it untenable.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher also objected to last week's measure, suggesting the homeless housing would be a magnet drawing drug addicts and alcoholics to Orange County.

Resistance from Irvine was particularly fierce at the meeting, with several residents expressing opposition to the proposed site.

The Unsolved Crisis

The decision comes after Orange County evicted hundreds of homeless people living along the Santa Ana riverbed in February.

The tent city, near Anaheim's ARTIC transit center and Angel Stadium, was a striking reminder of the extent of homelessness in one of America's wealthiest counties.

A homeless encampment made of tents and tarps lines the Santa Ana riverbed near Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Jan. 25, 2018.
A homeless encampment made of tents and tarps lines the Santa Ana riverbed near Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Jan. 25, 2018. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of those removed from the riverbed were temporarily placed in motels, many for longer than the 30 days originally planned for. The county is under pressure from U.S. District Court Judge David Carter to find beds in shelters, substance abuse programs and rehab facilities to house them.

Tuesday's vote will not resolve Orange County's homelessness crisis.

On Sunday, Judge Carter wrote in a court filing that "this County remains desperately in need of additional emergency shelter resources, and the Court remains concerned about the County’s ability to meet its promise to provide 'appropriate resources' to individuals at the end of their 30-day motel stays."

Further complicating the situation, Orange County plans to remove approximately 200 homeless people living in the Santa Ana Civic Center starting April 2. Carter has said he expects the county to find shelter for them, too.

Carter has also invited the mayors and city managers of Orange County's 34 cities to discuss long-term solutions to the homeless crisis in Orange County on April 3.