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Housing and Homelessness

As Winter Arrives, Orange County Still Has No One To Run Its Cold Weather Shelter

Two rows of cots line the wall of a room. Folded blankets are on each cot.
Officials in Orange County have so far not been able to find a provider to operate a cold weather winter shelter.
(Maya Sugarman
KPCC file photo)
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For the first time in 15 years, Orange County may go without a cold weather winter shelter for people experiencing homelessness. County officials say they have not been able to find a provider to operate the shelter, in part because of staffing challenges.

"Any program that operates on the overnight can be challenging to find folks that are interested in working," said Doug Becht, who oversees Orange County’s Office of Care Coordination.

Becht said the county hasn't given up on finding a shelter operator. But time is getting tight — typically the shelter opens by early December.

In addition, the city of Santa Ana has publicly opposed hosting the cold weather shelter within city boundaries this year, saying it's time for other cities, especially in south Orange County, to do their fair share. "It has to be equitable, said city spokesperson Paul Eakins. "There should be cold weather shelters in other locations, too."

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Santa Ana already has two, large year-round homeless shelters: the 425-bed Yale Navigation Center, run by the county, and the 200-bed Carnegie shelter, run by the city.

Other Shelters Have Barriers

Residents in south Orange County have long resisted opening shelters for unhoused people, arguing in part that clients would be far from the services that are largely concentrated in the county's central, urban core. (One exception: the Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach, which has operated since 1988.)

More than a dozen homeless shelters exist in Orange County — many of them opened in recent years as a result of a legal settlement between local government and advocates for the unhoused. But most of these shelters have criteria for getting a spot, like showing long-term ties to the community or a referral from the local police department.

"There is no door anywhere in Orange County that a person can walk in and say, 'I need a place to sleep tonight,'" said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center and one of the lawyers who initially sued the county over its lack of shelter space in 2018.

Weitzman said many homeless services organizations are putting their efforts into longer-term solutions and have declined to step up to operate this year’s winter shelter.

"The providers in our county are seeing how much greater success they have serving people when they can put people in a private room with their own bathroom and a door that locks," she said. "People have the safety and security that makes it comfortable for them to come back every night and really engage with the services."

Weitzman added that having a winter shelter like the Santa Ana Armory, which operated last year and had a low barrier to entry, is necessary because existing shelters in Orange County are often full, and some people can't meet the criteria to get a bed.

"Having any emergency shelter available on cold or rainy nights is for some people the difference between staying healthy, and getting pneumonia or hypothermia," she said.

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Weitzman thinks county officials should explore other options, like motel vouchers, to make sure everyone who needs to get out of the cold has a bed.

The Staffing Shortage Is Real

Last winter, Volunteers of America Los Angeles ran the Armory shelter. But Orlando Ward, the organization's executive director of external affairs, said they've had to curtail their involvement in short-term shelters like the Armory because they can't find workers.

"When we're struggling to keep staff in our full-time programs, it was not practical for us to bid on something that would be very difficult to staff, and staff at a high level," he said.

Ward wants funders to recognize the need for higher salaries for entry-level jobs in homeless services, pointing out that fast food chains are offering higher hourly wages than many shelters. His organization is helping to develop curriculum that would allow community college students to enter the field with more skills and, ideally, higher salaries.

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Updated December 2, 2022 at 10:12 AM PST
This story was updated to include details on shelters located in Santa Ana.