No Sanctuary for Homeless in Downtown Santa Ana

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.

Interim Santa Ana City Manager Chief Paul Walters (Photo: Chris Prevatt)

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:”

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.

  11 comments for “No Sanctuary for Homeless in Downtown Santa Ana

  1. March 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    So, the truth comes out and John Moorlach is tagged as the opportunist he is. If anyone in the city thinks that, by establishing shelters on the outskirts of the city, they will “fix” the honeless “problem” they have their head stuck in the sand. The honeless will continue to cobgregate at the civic center. The best solution is the bus station. It is practically turnkey and is not so far away the homeless wouldn’t use it. Now, who to run it…

  2. Jim Benson
    March 26, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Part of the problem that must be overcome is the idea that the homeless are all have mental or drug problems. While some do, but many are people from all walks of life that have lost jobs and thier homes, some work but do not have money for shelter.

    Those who have mental or drug problems would be better served if help was available, the majority would likely be very happy to have jobs or perhaps do community service work in exchange for shelter and foo

  3. March 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    The homeless solution is a “Tea Party 2” tax revolt for cities and manufacturing companies against Sacramento. Keep tax revenue local; – don’t send tax revenue to the Green Fascists in Sacramento.

    • Hell no Sacramento, we’re not going to buy Carbon Offsets, Carbon Swaps, or any manner of Carbon Derivatives. We’re not going to be part of a $2 Trillion Carbon Derivatives Bubble that, when it pops, will bankrupt California; fine us to your heart’s content, – we’ll just declare bankruptcy.

    (”Could Cap and Trade Cause Another Market Meltdown? It’s anticipated that carbon default swaps, (carbon derivatives), will be a $2 trillion market, the biggest of any “commodities” derivatives product in the next five years.”)

    • Hell no Sacramento we’re not going Green; for every Green Job created 2.2 jobs are lost.

    By Gianluca Baratti – March 27, 2009 07:58 EDT
    Full report

    • Hell no Sacramento, we’re not going to build “Low Income Housing;” instead we’re going to use the money to convert vacant Industrial Parks and the Bus Depot into homeless shelters.

  4. cook
    March 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    The County has an unused building on Ross, right where the homeless hang out for their meals on wheels. It is a baseball throw away from the bus station.

    The building has been empty for more than 20 years, and the square feet is greater than the bus station parking lot.

    It is a county wide problem, not just the city of Santa Ana’s. The county has the building and the money to do the job. So why isn’t the county doing its job?

    • March 27, 2012 at 12:45 am


      That building is unsafe for occupancy. It has asbestos and other problems. The building needs significant work and the county has considered tearing it down and starting over. The problem is the cost is too great, and between the 1994 Bankruptcy and the current economy, it doesn’t look like a project of this size will be undertaken by the county.

      Bottom line, the homeless are safer out in the cold and rain than they would be in that building.

      • cook
        March 27, 2012 at 10:18 am

        My point was the county already owns this building. It is in the right location for homeless services, the cost of rebuilding or tear down and start from scratch is a cost that the county is responsible for as owner.

        The county is responsible for the property and infrastructure under it care, same with each city.

        This building and others like it in the county and the many cities are proof of a failure of management to perform the basic responsibilities of their jobs.

        Government work, where failure is rewarded.

  5. SAGirl
    March 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Cook-that bldg is condemened & not fit for the rats & roaches that live in it, much less the homeless…

    I don’t like the idea of the old OCTA terminal being a homeless shelter. I’m tired of SA being the dumping ground for all the bad elements of the county. I feel bad for many of those that are homeless by no choice of their own, there are opportunties out there for those who want them.

    I would like to see that area become a skateboard park for our youth…there is no where they can hangout & this would be a better soluntion for that space..

    • March 27, 2012 at 12:57 am

      SA Girl,

      I am sure you didn’t mean to imply that because a person is homeless they are a bad element. To suggest that they are homeless by choice is also something I hope you are not suggesting.

      Individuals who are homeless and not bad elements of our society. They are homeless because they have nowhere affordable to live. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of unemployment. Some suffer from mental illness, or problems of substance abuse.

      I agree that more parks in Santa Ana are needed, including skateboard parks. The old bus terminal may end up not being feasible for conversion to a homeless shelter for a variety of reasons. The city manager however should not simply reject the proposal out of hand. The homeless have been in downtown Santa Ana for decades. Santa Ana is indeed “Downtown Orange County” then city leaders need to accept the reality that the homeless of Orange County may choose to live downtown.

      And for the record, homeless living in the Civic Center are Santa Ana residents just as much as you are.

      • Liz
        April 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm

        I disagree with your last sentence. I pay taxes to my city and county – the homeless in Santa Ana simply benefit from the services I help pay for. They are not “residents of Santa Ana” – they are leeches.

        • April 11, 2012 at 8:23 pm


          Where is it in the state or federal law that residency is determined by whether or not someone pays property taxes?

          In most cases, those who are homeless were once self sufficient/tax paying citizens. The U.S. Census counts people residing in communities based upon where they live. They are therefore classified as residents of those communities. We do not exclude the homeless from the census count.

          You have no right to classify people who have fallen on hard times as leeches. That, in my book, is morally reprehensible.

  6. christian
    April 18, 2012 at 5:09 am

    in the meantime, stop TICKETING and arresting (if the fines build up) the homeless for peacefully sleeping on grass around the Civic Center, when the few shelters are completely full and no other options exist for them.

Comments are closed.