As the county seat of government, the county’s second largest city, and it’s central location make the Santa Ana’s Civic Center a magnet for the homeless. For years, the city has wrestled with the problem of homelessness with limited progress. In 1992, Santa Ana passed its anti-camping ordinance in order to eradicate the tent city set up by the homeless in the Civic Center and it was this law that kept Santa Ana from paying more than lip service support for the Occupy Orange County movement.
Nearly two years ago, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) closed its transit terminal in the Civic Center but kept the restrooms in the facility on Santa Ana Boulevard open daily from 8:00 am till 10:00 pm and these restrooms are used extensively by the county’s homeless. The City objected to the opening of restroom facilities, but they have been splitting the nearly $34,000 in annual costs with the County to keep the restrooms open and cleaned year-round.
Back in mid-February Supervisor John Moorlach floated the idea of converting the former transit terminal to use as a year-round homeless shelter. For the idea to move forward though, the City has to be on board and approve zoning changes necessary for the shelter’s development. In response City Manager Paul Walters fired off a letter to Moorlach strongly objecting to the proposal. In an interview with the Voice of OC , Walters explained:
“The homeless thing is important, but I’m not sure how quickly we’ll be able to come up with the solution,” Walters said. The Santa Ana Planning Department is examining zoning and other codes for the bus station, he said. “The concern, of course, is for the downtown business people.”
Walters statements are at odds however with the city’s current Housing Element of its General Plan. Project #47 in the city’s 2009 updated Housing Element calls for the city to:
“create an overlay zone in the M-1 Light Industrial zone and select commercial zones that encompass underutilized sites, with adequate access to transit, public services, and support services. The City will then amend the Zoning Code and craft the permit processing, development, and management standards to facilitate emergency shelters.”
Based on County of Orange data included in the 2006 Housing Element, Santa Ana’s homeless population is estimated at sligthly more than 1,800. The unsheltered need has been estimated at 757 beds. Senate Bill 2, signed into law in 2007, requires cities address their unmet need for emergency shelters by identifying a zone(s) where year-round emergency shelters are permitted without a conditional use permit or other discretionary permit. The zone is to have adequate capacity to accommodate the unmet emergency shelter need for homeless people. Permit processing, and development and management standards for emergency shelters will be adopted to facilitate such uses.
Jay Trevino, Executive Director of Santa Ana’s Planning and Building Agency, told theLiberalOC on Friday that draft policy ideas including proposed overlay zones would be in preliminary form for discussion this summer. When asked by email if this would be the first progress on this objective Trevino wrote:
“The progress projected for this summer will be the first as it relates to those particular objectives. These objectives, as well as many others in the element, have been delayed. If you’re interested, a report on our implementation of the Housing Element goals was reviewed by the City Council on its last agenda. The report was listed as item 19C and can be found here: http://www.santa-ana.org/coc/documents/agenda.pdf.”
That report shows very little progress on the “plan” to address homelessness since it was adopted in 2009:
In 2011, City staff met with local Emergency Shelter provider, the Salvation Army, regarding their proposal to expand their existing year-round shelter serving the homeless. A Work Program has been drafted by City Staff, to develop recommendations for future consideration by Commission(s) and City Council.
Trevino blames the slow progress in part on budget cuts. “Efforts to implement the Housing Element, and really most every initiative in my department, have been affected by budget cuts,” Trevino said. “Since 2009, my department staffing has been cut by 50 percent.”
But even if progress were made, the City’s plan may not allow for any new shelters in the Civic Center. There is a small amount of space in the nearby Station District that is zoned as M-1 Light Industrial through an overlay. The Salvation Army site is in a M-2 Heavy Industrial area in the district. The majority of the M-1 industrial areas are located on the outskirts of the city. While the Orange County Social Services Agency has a facility in the eastern outskirts, near the National Guard Armory, there are no areas for the homeless to congregate, other than the nearby Delhi family park.
On Friday, the Orange County Commission to End Homelessness met to discuss Supervisor Moorlach’s proposal for the transit terminal. Lacking much detail, Moorlach’s proposal is conceptual and its urgency is driven by the desire of OCTA to dispose of the property. According to Trevino, the lack of detail is part of the problem. “There are practical concerns that need to be considered,” Trevino said; “as well as Building Code issues, pedestrian safety, and concerns from the downtown business community. The City is taking the issue seriously, but a good idea in a bad location is not success.”
Walters recently sent an email to Vicky Baxter Executive Director of Downtown Inc., the non-profit Santa Ana contracts with to promote the downtown business community, and explained the importance of downtown business owners participating in the meeting. His email read in its entirety:
“Vicky this is really important can you get some of your downtown business owners to turn out to stop the transit center from being recommended for homeless at the transit center on Santa Ana Blvd.”
According to Voice of OC reporter Tracy Wood, Walters said the full context of his emails made it clear that he felt it was important for all sides of the issue to express themselves. “They need to say it in their own words,” he said.
Walters’ email seems to reinforce the perception that the City has little interest in addressing the needs of the homeless in the Civic Center, even on a temporary basis, with a focus to move the homeless to industrial parks on the outskirts of the city. The city wants no interim solutions to get in the way of that plan.
The Orange County Commission to End Homelessness voted on Friday to urge OCTA to delay their decision on the disposition of the transit terminal property to allow for the City and County to work out a more detailed plan.
The disease of Homelessness Denial isn’t reserved to just Santa Ana. A January 23, 2012 Voice of OC editorial quotes Ryan Burris of the Orange County Rescue Mission from his conversation with the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.
Burris talked to editorial board members about the challenges of being on the front lines in Orange County.
He said the biggest challenge often times comes from cities that don’t want to accept their responsibilities to provide temporary or transitional housing or want to deal only with private-sector feeding efforts.
“They refuse to admit they even have homeless people that live there,” Burris said.
Take for example the City of Dana Point. Burris noted that city officials have recently adopted ordinances that prevent shelters from offering beds to homeless people and even have the local sheriff’s substation discourage efforts to feed homeless people.
“They want to push that [homeless people] out,” Burris said.
Here is a video of part of that conversation.
The discussion is far from over and, in the meantime, the homeless residing in downtown Santa Ana wait for Sanctuary, in the form of shelter.