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Could sanctioned tent camps help alleviate homelessness in Orange County?

Serena Welch washes clothes outside of public bathrooms near the Santa Ana River in Orange County. She's been living in a tent near the river for four years. Jill Replogle

Serena Welch washed clothes in a small wastebasket filled with soapy water next to the Santa Ana River bike path in Orange on a recent afternoon. The auburn-haired 56-year-old has been living in a tent nearby for four years, recycling cans and bottles to earn money for basic needs. 

“It’s not so miserable out here,” she said. "There’s some really good people.” Still, she’d like to have 24-hour access to a bathroom (the nearby, public bathrooms are closed at night). And she said she misses the responsibility that goes along with having your own place.   

What about a shelter? “I don’t care for the shelters,” Welch said. "I mean, I appreciate them. But I have a dog.” 

Most shelters don’t allow pets, which is one of the reasons Welch and many others prefer to camp by the river. Even if they could bring pets, Orange County doesn’t have enough emergency shelter beds for its growing homeless population, according to a recent assessment, especially for single men and women. 

In January, volunteers scouring the county’s streets, parks and riverbeds counted more than 2,500 people sleeping outside. That’s an increase of 54 percent since they counted four years ago.  

Advocates for the homeless and county officials agree that getting homeless people into permanent housing quickly — the "rapid re-housing" strategy — is the cure for homelessness.  

But matching needy people with affordable housing — especially in high-cost, housing-deficient Orange County — can take months or even years. In the interim, some are exploring ways to get homeless people off the streets, even if they’re still in tents.  

Anaheim resident Nancy West is one of them. On a recent morning, she stood at an easel in her living room, explaining a drawing of a proposed tent encampment she calls Al Fresco Gardens.

"Each of these spaces is the size of a standard parking space,” she said, pointing to rows of rectangles laid out in a grid.  

West’s proposal is for a walled, landscaped tent encampment with space for about 400 tents, including a section for those with pets. It would also have storage spaces, bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities and an area where people could connect with homeless service providers to get help finding permanent housing and jobs.  

The camp would also have rules and a security guard.  

"Let’s get them an address,” said West, who was once homeless herself for about a year. "Let’s get them a place where they can go to sleep at night and take showers and put on clean clothes and go apply for a job.” 

West has been pitching her plan to local officials, but hasn’t yet gotten much response.  

Still, County Supervisor Shawn Nelson has proposed the idea of emergency tent shelters to his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors. City officials in Irvine and Huntington Beach, where county land was identified as potential hosts for the proposed shelters, have discouraged the idea.  

Many experts on homelessness say sanctioned tent camps are a bad idea. 

“I think what we need to do as advocates is not get diverted by gimmicks,” said Larry Haynes, director of Mercy House, which runs several shelters and programs for homeless people in Southern California, including Anaheim's new Kraemer shelter. "We know what works, it’s housing. Let’s keep our focus on housing, not distractions.” 

And yet, some cities are embracing sanctioned tent camps, including Seattle, Washington.  

The city of Seattle has opened six sanctioned encampments — some with tents, some with tiny houses, some with a mix — under an emergency plan that includes rapidly increasing shelter space. 

One of the camps, Nickelsville in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, consists of 16 tents and five 8-by-12-foot tiny houses on a city-owned lot. It has a 500-gallon water tank, a communal kitchen and a couple of port-a-potties.  

Roxi Baker landed here about a month ago with her fiancé after a series of apartment mishaps, at least one of them involving her future husband's relapse into alcohol abuse. She said the camp rule against drugs and alcohol was one of the reasons they picked Nickelsville.  

“Everybody’s really good, there’s no fights, there’s nobody falling down drunk,” she said. “It’s just not allowed, or you’ll be kicked out.” 

The city considers the camps a temporary stop on the road from homelessness to permanent housing, and a stopgap measure while the city builds the necessary capacity to focus on "housing first.”  

Baker said she doesn’t plan to be at the Nickelsville camp for long. She said housing counselors were working to find an apartment for Baker, her fiancé, who’s a veteran, and their cat. 

 “We can do this for a minute,” she said of living at the camp. "For a person that has nothing, it’s something."  

Seattle has taken some flak for its sanctioned homeless encampments, including from the former Obama administration’s homelessness czar, Barbara Poppe, who has worked with the city on its homelessness response plan.

She said Seattle’s decision to open the camps was made under “extreme" political pressure from advocates. 

"I honestly don’t understand why they would put any level of interest and energy into this kind of work rather than putting efforts into building more affordable housing and redesigning and implementing a homeless response system that helps people get back on their feet and helps people avoid homelessness,” said Poppe.

She said emergency shelters need to be reformed to better serve homeless people, including by allowing pets. 

Many who work closely with the homeless say Seattle's sanctioned encampments are an imperfect, but realistic solution to a crisis, and that they save lives.  

“If you’re homeless on the street, you’re really vulnerable to being attacked, especially women and seniors,” said Sharon Lee, who heads the Low Income Housing Institute, which funds five of Seattle’s sanctioned encampments. The organization also owns and manages some 2,000 apartments, including many that come with social services for low-income people.  

"We’re trying to get everybody into a safe place,” Lee said of the camps. "People’s health improves, their mental health improves and they make a great transition to permanent housing.” 

Some California cities are considering following Seattle's lead, including Sacramento and San Jose. Sacramento City Council officials said in March that they were open to the idea if Councilman Allen Warren, who’s been pushing for it, can come up with a solid plan. His office said the plan was coming soon. 

San Jose is further along. An emergency law was passed last year allowing the city to suspend California building, health and safety codes in order to build tiny house villages to provide temporary shelter for homeless people waiting for low-income housing.  

Ray Bramson, San Jose’s Homelessness Response Manager, said officials are currently working with neighborhood groups to identify sites for the villages — one in each city council district — with the goal of having them operational by early 2018.  

The tiny homes will be reserved for people in line to get city-supported permanent housing. San Jose is investing $70 million to develop more than 500 apartments for homeless people, Bramson said. 

The temporary villages will "provide a roof, a little bit of privacy and a little bit of dignity while they’re waiting,” he said.   

In Orange County, homeless campers like Welch know their living situation is precarious. Calls are mounting to either improve conditions for the people living along the Santa Ana River, for example, by bringing in port-a-potties, or remove them from the area completely. 

When told of Anaheim resident Nancy West’s idea for a sanctioned encampment, Welch said she’d move to a place like that. 

“That would work, I think, for a lot of people,” she said. "We’re living in tents anyway."