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Orange County struggles to find motels to house homeless

Fritz Reichenbach waits along the Santa Ana River to board a van for a motel in Buena Park where he'll stay for 30 days.
Fritz Reichenbach waits along the Santa Ana River to board a van for a motel in Buena Park where he'll stay for 30 days.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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Orange County has taken on the huge physical task this month of moving hundreds of homeless people from a tent city along the Santa Ana river, but one of the most challenging aspects is finding the motel rooms to house them, as required under a court order.

A week into this undertaking, county staffers are still working around the clock to find motel operators to accept homeless guests for 30 days, said Jason Austin, a homeless coordinator with the county's health agency. 

"We have definitely hit some barriers," Austin said, speaking from a command post across the river from Anaheim's Honda Center. "The stigma attached to working with anyone with mental health or substance abuse issues and the homeless is very powerful. So it's our job to really educate people about working with our population."

Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer for the homeless, urges riverbed resident Scott Henderson to pack up so he can go spend the night at a motel.
Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer for the homeless, urges riverbed resident Scott Henderson to pack up so he can go spend the night at a motel.
Josie Huang/KPCC

The county has placed more than 400 people in motels since Feb. 14 but there are at least 100 to 200 more people who need to be housed, said county spokeswoman Jen Nentwig, basing the estimate on the number of tents that still dot the riverbed. 

Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer for those who had been living along the riverbed, recognized the challenge the county is facing. 

"There’s a lot of motels who maybe say, 'Yes,' then change their mind or say, 'Sorry, we’re not interested,'" Weitzman said.

And those who accept homeless people sometimes do so with caveats, Weitzman said.

"We’re getting reports of motels taking shower curtains and refrigerators out of the rooms that are guests are placed in," Weitzman said. 

Buena Park motel owner Kash Singh says he got a call from the county requesting rooms.

"They sounded like they were in panic mode," Singh said. 

Kash Singh and his wife are renting 40 of the 53 rooms in their Buena Park motel to the county.
Kash Singh and his wife are renting 40 of the 53 rooms in their Buena Park motel to the county.
Josie Huang/KPCC

He was hesitant at first, worried that the riverbed residents could cause disturbances at his motel. But he, with his wife, said they've watched the county's homelessness problem grow over the years. 

"I thought this was one opportunity to help out, so we did it," Singh said. They decided to rent out 40 out of 53 of their rooms. He said they've experienced no issues since accepting homeless people starting Tuesday. 

Fritz Reichenbach pushes his bicycle across the parking lot of the Buena Park motel he's staying at.
Fritz Reichenbach pushes his bicycle across the parking lot of the Buena Park motel he's staying at.
Josie Huang/KPCC

But even at participating motels, there were mix-ups because of the enormous feat of moving so many people into a limited number of rooms.

Fritz Reichenbach has been living on the streets since he lost his office job and then his home to foreclosure in 2012. So he was excited to be shuttled from his riverbed tent to Singh's motel on Tuesday night with his two Chihuahuas, where he could enjoy "hot and cold running water, a door that closes, TV, a bath!"

But once Reichenbach got to the motel in Buena Park, there were more people than rooms available. So he was taken back to the riverbed where he spent a cold evening, sleeping under a tree with a blanket. His tent and other items had already gone into county storage. But he didn't complain.

"I was happy about it," Reichenbach said. "This is what I know here. But the park — it's coming to an end."

The next day he was brought back to Singh's motel, and this time there was a room for him and his dogs.