OC Is About To Start Making Radical Changes To Help Its Homeless

Tammy Schuler walks her dogs on Jan. 25, 2018, beside a row of tents and tarps where she lived near Angel Stadium. (Photo by Jill Replogle/LAist)

Orange County officials and advocates for the homeless have agreed on radical changes for addressing one of SoCal's most vexing problems.

The two sides this week filed a tentative settlement in a lawsuit stemming from the eviction of hundreds of people from the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment.

The settlement would ensure more emergency shelter beds, and standards for engaging with and providing services for homeless individuals.

Here's the deal:

WHAT'S THIS CASE ABOUT, AGAIN?

Back in January, Orange County officials started to clear out the large homeless encampment that had grown up along the Santa Ana riverbed that borders Orange, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fountain Valley and several other cities.

The encampment had become a real embarrassment for local officials: a Third World-esque shanty town right in the shadow of Angel Stadium, in plain view of major freeways.

When they tried to evict the people living there, county officials were slapped with a lawsuit. Advocates for the homeless argued the evictions were unconstitutional because there was nowhere else for them to sleep without breaking the law. That was because of a lack of shelter beds, particularly ones that could accommodate people with disabilities.

About 700 people were moved into motels for a month — paid for by the county. The goal was to use that time to set them on a path that would get them off the streets for good.

A line of homeless people at the Santa Ana riverbed wait to get connected with a motel room or shelter on Feb. 20, 2018. (Photo by Jill Replogle/LAist)

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Some people ended up back on the streets, although we don't have exact numbers. There are a couple of reasons why. Some people got kicked out of shelters or were told they no longer qualified for services. Advocates say many of those people were kicked out unfairly.

Carol Sobel, a lawyer for homeless plaintiffs, said sometimes it was a simple as not knowing how to handle someone with a mental illness.

"You have somebody who's schizophrenic or bipolar, they get angry," she said, "and if you don't have someone trained ... they take offense and kick them out."

This settlement hopes to address that by setting up clear guidelines for how shelters are run, and establishing rules for residents and rights if they're threatened with eviction from a shelter or treatment program.

There'll even be an appeals process.

That was important to homeless advocates because if people are just kicked to the curb, it defeats the goal of trying to get them off the streets.

WHAT ELSE DOES THIS TENTATIVE SETTLEMENT CHANGE?

First, let's look back:

Prior to the lawsuit, sheriff's deputies might approach someone sleeping on county property or on a public sidewalk and threaten them with a trespassing charge or a ticket for loitering if they refused to leave.

A deputy might tell that person they could go to a shelter, but in reality, there probably wouldn't have been any open beds. There's currently only one county-run homeless shelter for single adults that doesn't require a reservation. It's a former bus depot called the Courtyard, located in downtown Santa Ana.

There are some private shelters, but most have conditions, like being a veteran, or pregnant, or make you feel like you have to participate in religious activities. So basically OC has only one place considered "low-barrier" when it comes to getting a bed.

The Courtyard has been packed since it opened in late 2016, often with more than 400 people per night. It is not appropriate for many people with mental or physical disabilities.

Here's what will be different, if this settlement is ultimately approved:

Going forward, a homeless person sleeping on county land or in a public space would be approached by a county health care worker. That trained social worker would figure out what the person needs and what resources and shelter options are available.

Only then, if that person still refuses to leave, would law enforcement be able to act.

WHAT ABOUT SHELTER SPACE? YOU JUST SAID THERE WASN'T ANY

That's true but it's changing. Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers for the homeless, says that about 1,200 new shelter beds are expected to become available in the next few months. And that within about six months, there should be available and appropriate beds for almost every unsheltered person in OC — around 2,500 people, according to the latest county, from 2017. Sobel called the progress toward that goal "phenomenal."

"You know I've been litigating in Los Angeles for 18 years," she said, "so anything that turns around in 18 months, yeah, I'm excited."

And Sobel has been fighting with L.A. for all that time to get the city to develop an adequate emergency shelter system. The fact that it doesn't have one is a big reason why you see so many people sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles.

Sobel thinks the threat of becoming another L.A., is part of the reason why we seem to be headed toward a positive settlement in Orange County.

Homeless veteran Kendrick Bailey's tent in downtown Los Angeles on June 20, 2017. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

WHAT DOES THE COUNTY SAY ABOUT THE SETTLEMENT PROPOSAL?

The majority of the Orange County Board of Supervisors is supportive of the proposed settlement, according to the county's lead attorney, Leon Page. There are still a few details to be worked out.

Page sees the settlement as a win for the county.

"What this does is provide the county with a road map for ensuring that there will be no encampments within the county, or at least on county property," he said.

The reason he's specifying county property is because settlements are still in the works with Orange County cities. Some of those settlements also are close to being finalized.

But this fight isn't over. Sobel's team plans to add cities in south Orange County to the lawsuit. That's because it's the one part of the county that's not working to open new shelters.

Currently, the only low-barrier shelter for homeless individuals in south OC is in Laguna Beach. It sleeps 45.


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