After months of denying the need, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to set up as many as three new temporary homeless shelters in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel. The board also voted to allocate $70.5 million to renovate or acquire buildings to provide housing and services for homeless people with mental illness.
"It’s fantastic,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, who spearheaded the effort.
"I feel bad that we have to select sites, but that’s the way it is,” he said, hinting at a potential backlash from city leaders and neighbors.
He said the first planned shelter, on 100 acres of county land in Irvine, could be up and running under a tent within two weeks.
Supervisors had floated the idea last year of siting temporary shelters in Irvine and Huntington Beach, only to be met with swift resistance from city leaders and neighbors.
Monday’s vote was in response to a lawsuit that alleged the county didn’t have enough shelter and rehab beds to house the more than 700 homeless people who were evicted in February from an encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed.
Under a preliminary settlement, officials placed most of those evicted in motels for a month while they worked to find longer-term solutions. The 30-day deadline to vacate the motels ends this week for most people, and lawyers for the homeless have objected to the lack of detail regarding next steps.
They’ve also raised concerns about what they say are inadequate referrals to shelters or treatment centers for some homeless people with mental illnesses or other special needs.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer was the only one of the five board members to vote against the temporary shelter plan.
"To think that we have to create a bed for every single person we moved off the riverbed is ludicrous to me," he said. Spitzer cited reports from the sheriff's department and the county health care agency that at least 250 people removed rom the riverbed didn't want the county's help.
He said existing shelters and treatment centers could accommodate the remaining who want assistance getting off the street.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson accused Spitzer of trying to score political points. Spitzer is running for district attorney; Nelson is running for Congress.
“The reality is the judge had to order because we wouldn’t do stuff that we should’ve done a year ago, but it’s just not popular,” Nelson said.
Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner said he was disappointed with the temporary shelter plan and wasn’t informed about it until Monday morning. He questioned whether the land, which he said has no running water or electricity and is far from public transportation, is an appropriate site.
“I’m not real sure how recreating the situation in Irvine that we had at the riverbed is in anyone’s best interest,” he said.
Brooke Weitzman, one of the lawyers representing homeless clients, called the county's plan “a step in the right direction.”
"Of course, we want to see those things come to fruition,” she said.
She highlighted the need for more shelter space and recuperative beds for homeless couples, especially when mental illness is a factor.
“We all know, and I think all the parties agree, that it’s in the best interest of the person with a mental health condition to keep them with their caretaker and their family member,” she said.
The county did vote Monday to enter into a contract with a private organization to provide 12 housing units that accommodate couples, which Weitzman supported but questioned whether it would be enough.
Supervisors embarrassed by stashed mental health funds
Several supervisors said they only recently discovered that the county had several hundred million dollars in unspent funds earmarked for mental health services, including housing.
The unanimous vote to spend $70.5 million to house homeless people with mental illnesses would be funded with tax money collected through the Mental Health Services Act. U.S. District Judge David Carter, who is overseeing the homeless case, has accused the county of “chipmunking” funds that could be used to address homelessness.
Supervisor Spitzer said Monday that the county had accumulated $380 million over the last two years that could be directed toward housing and services for mentally ill homeless people.
“We did not know that those dollars were potentially available to build housing,” he said. “I’m embarrassed. Because I was led to believe until today that we were doing everything in our power to put money on the street to help people who need our help.”
Spitzer seemed to blame staff members for not informing the board of the funds.
Supervisor Do said the board would look into who’s responsible for the miscommunication.
“We will look into that in the future, today is not the day,” Do said.