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Orange County cities threaten lawsuits over planned homeless shelters

File: A homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley. Orange County officials are facing pushback from cities where they had hoped to cite three temporary shelters.
File: A homeless shelter in the Antelope Valley. Orange County officials are facing pushback from cities where they had hoped to cite three temporary shelters.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The three cities where Orange County officials want to place temporary homeless shelters are threatening to sue the county over the plan.

Irvine officials voted Tuesday night to initiate litigation against the county, alleging its plan to open a tented homeless shelter for up to 200 people lacks local permits and violates state environmental law.

“You’re trying to put human beings on land that is contaminated, on land that doesn’t have running water, doesn’t have sewer services, doesn’t have electricity,” Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner said. Some of the land, which borders the Orange County Great Park, was once the El Toro Marine base and is awaiting industrial cleanup.

Wagner also said the site was far from health care and job placement services and lacked adequate transportation options. "It's the wrong site," he said.

But Supervisor Andrew Do said county officials carefully considered each proposed site. 

"We looked at a list of our County-owned land and chose the sites that had the feasibility by way of access and location to provide emergency shelter," he wrote in a statement. 

Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, the other two cities where the county plans to potentially site temporary homeless shelters, also plan to file legal complaints. 

The negative reactions highlight an ongoing spat between the county and cities about who is responsible for chronic homelessness and what should be done to resolve it. U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, who has taken an unusually prominent role in trying to find solutions, has chastised the county for failing to spend money to prevent homelessness.

He has also accused cities of dumping homeless people in central Orange County and not doing their share to address the problem.

The reactions to the emergency shelter plan were expected by county supervisors but leave them in a tough spot. The county is under pressure from Judge Carter to prove it has enough beds and appropriate services to accommodate some 700 homeless people who were removed from a Santa Ana River homeless encampment in February. 

The judge also announced at a special hearing Saturday that he expects the county to find shelter for another approximately 200 homeless people currently sleeping in the Santa Ana Civic Center. He said clearing of that encampment would begin April 2. 

Under a preliminary legal settlement reached in February between the county and lawyers for the homeless, most of the riverbed evictees are currently living in motels scattered throughout the area. But time is running out on their 30-day guaranteed stays. On Thursday, up to 100 people could be asked to move out of the motels. 

Most have been referred to emergency homeless shelters, temporary housing with mental health services, residential treatment for substance abuse or recuperative care. But lawyers representing homeless clients have alleged that some of the placements are inappropriate  for disabled individuals, among others. They’ve also said the county has failed to show it has enough available shelter beds to accommodate the influx of riverbed evictees.

Irvine Mayor Wagner, who is part of a newly formed, countywide coalition on homelessness, said the county’s plan for temporary shelters would merely shift homelessness from central Orange County to Irvine and the other cities. 

“Instead of solving anything, they just moved it, and that’s not a solution to the homeless crisis” he said. Wagner said the county should’ve convened the cities and private sector to come up with a solution to the lack of shelter space. 

Wagner admitted concern that the city’s pushback against the plan would be perceived as NIMBYism. But he said the city was doing its share to fight homelessness. He said city government had dedicated almost $30 million in state funds toward affordable housing and was home to several organizations that assist homeless people, including Families Forward and the Second Harvest food back.  

“We've been at the forefront of trying to solve the problem for the last couple of years,” he said. 

Huntington Beach City Attorney Michael Gates said his city also plans to file a legal complaint against the county if it doesn’t reconsider its plan to site a 100-person temporary shelter on county-owned land near the city’s Central Park. He also cited environmental and safety concerns with the site, which is a former landfill.

“It’s not a compatible situation,” he said. 

Laguna Niguel City Council also voted Tuesday night to sue the county over its plans to locate a 100-person shelter on land in its downtown area.  

Mayor Elaine Gennawey said in a statement that she was “outraged by the Orange County Board of Supervisors’ poorly thought out decision.” 

"They have had years to address this issue, and they are the ones who put themselves in this 'time crunch' with an apparent limitation of ill-advised options,” Gennawey wrote. 

The mayor said the county should consider providing transitional housing and accompanying services for the homeless at one, larger site. County supervisors said at their meeting Monday that they chose the three sites based on the availability of county land. They also noted that the sites were spread evenly among the county's three geographic planning areas.