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Deadline looms to find shelter for OC homeless in motels

Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer for the homeless, urges a riverbed resident to pack up so he can go spend the night at a motel on Feb. 21, 2018. County officials are now nearing a deadline to transition people out of the motels into more permanent housing.
Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer for the homeless, urges a riverbed resident to pack up so he can go spend the night at a motel on Feb. 21, 2018. County officials are now nearing a deadline to transition people out of the motels into more permanent housing.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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More than two weeks after Orange County officials cleared a homeless encampment and put nearly 700 people in motels, the deadline is looming for a more permanent solution. 

Under a legal settlement that allowed the 2-mile long Santa Ana River encampment to be cleared in February, the county is supposed to help find alternative housing for evictees before their 30-day motel vouchers are up. That could be the end of this week for some people. 

Many homeless people and advocates are skeptical that the county can find alternatives in such a short time. 

“You can’t even get through the red tape in 30 days,” said Craig Alan, who’s been homeless for three years and is now staying at a motel in Laguna Niguel. 

County health care agency workers have been visiting homeless people spread throughout the county to assess their need for housing and support services and determine what resources are available to them. Officials said Friday that they had carried out 221 assessments. 

That means roughly two-thirds of the homeless people in motels haven’t yet been assessed. 

Some of those staying in motels expressed anxiety about the looming deadline. Andrea Phipps is pregnant and staying at a motel in Tustin with her partner. She said a county worker visited, asked if she would be willing to stay in a shelter and gave her some phone numbers to call to get mental health and other services.  

“It’s like they pushed me off, you know?” she said. 

Despite her frustration, she said she's working hard to get her life back on track and look for affordable housing.  

"I needed a quiet place to sit down and make calls,” she said of her transition from the riverbed to a motel. "Now I’m able to do that, so there should be no excuse on my part.”

Phipps and others praised the volunteers who have been darting around to different motels, taking people to doctor’s appointments and helping them sign up for benefits. 

Mohammed Aly is among the volunteers. He said homeless people with mental health issues aren’t getting the services they need.

"There are some people not healthy enough to be sitting in a motel room by themselves without mental health treatment,” he said. He was also skeptical of the county’s ability to provide housing and services to all those evicted from the riverbed. 

"There has been a good faith effort to identify this problem of a lack of case management and care … but I highly doubt that the health care agency can find the resources and the employees to handle this big of a load this quickly,” Aly said. 

County Supervisor Andrew Do said the county was on track to have shelter and other resources in place to transition people out of motels when their 30 days are up. 

“We are beefing up our capacity every day for transitional housing,” he said. Do said he couldn’t give specifics because the list of shelter and other housing options hasn’t been finalized or approved by the board of supervisors. But said it would include a variety of options beyond emergency shelter. 

Do said it was likely that not all people currently in motels would accept the resources offered. 

Paul Leon, executive director of the Illumination Foundation, said the number of people sleeping on streets around Orange County had increased since the county cleared the riverbed. "It’s just kind of moved everybody,” he said. 

Leon said his organization had received more than double its normal volume of calls alerting them to homeless people on city streets in the last two weeks.

He and others also questioned the wisdom of relying on transitional housing as a next step for riverbed evictees. Several years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cut funding for transitional housing, or short-term housing, in favor of permanent housing with support services. The latter has been found more effective at keeping chronically homeless people housed. 

Supervisor Do defended the county's plan to use transitional housing and said the federal government's failure to fund this type of housing had contributed to the growing homeless population. 

Sitting in his tidy motel room in Laguna Niguel, Alan was hopeful he could get his life back on track. He said he works construction and other odd jobs, but hasn't been able to save up enough money to afford rent in Orange County. 

He said if the county can't offer him housing at the end of his 30-day stay, he’ll push for more time at the motel. He's doubtful county workers will be able to offer him housing before his time's up, and he doesn't like sleeping in shelters, though he says he's done it plenty of times. 

"It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.