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Huntington Beach opens huge tent for the homeless

From the street, it looks as though a blimp hangar has sprouted on Beach Boulevard.

On the inside, too, the new homeless shelter in Huntington Beach brings to mind Tustin’s spectacular World War II-era hangars.

Set to open Monday, Dec. 7, this new cavernous dome is, at its core, an extremely sturdy and well-insulated tent. However, to be clear, at 11,600 square feet the head-turning dome is not nearly large enough to garage a dirigible.

It is the first time a big tent will be used to shelter homeless people in Orange County. The idea has been talked about before – and in 2018 county officials even approved such tents for the unhoused in three locations, including Huntington Beach – but it was batted down when residents objected.

This go around, the pushback hasn’t been so strong. Over a three-month window, the “navigation center” rose from a vacant lot to the structure it is now. The process started in August, when the city demolished a crumbling century-old house on the three-acre parcel – which is wedged between strip malls, medical offices and apartment complexes.

That pace is part of the tent’s allure.

“Building a permanent structure would take significantly longer,” said Ursula Luna-Reynosa, director of community development for Huntington Beach. “The shelter would not be up and running for at least another year.”



The cavernous shelter – 195 feet long, 60 feet wide and 26 feet tall – can house up to 174 temporary residents. That means it can provide places to sleep for around 60% of the people who are homeless in Huntington Beach – a standard set by a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit that’s aimed at changing the homeless situation in Orange County.

Financially, Huntington Beach lucked out with the shelter.

Facing its own deadlines, the County of Orange offered to reimburse the city $2 million in emergency coronavirus funds as a way to help get homeless people off the streets. The county also will cover some future operational costs.

In return, 30 beds are earmarked for county use, meaning the people who sleep in those beds might be from outside Huntington Beach.

Since the county had already ordered the bulk of the tent, much of what the city would need for the project was already in place.

“We inherited it, so to speak,” said Sean Crumby, director of Public Works for Huntington Beach.

“It wasn’t big enough for our needs,” Crumby added, referencing the city’s decision to use the tent for the homeless. “So we procured the middle section. The structure fits together almost like Legos.”

Full services

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the cacophony of construction continued as workers busily made finishing touches.

Bed frames – not yet set apart at healthy distances – filled the shelter’s center. To mitigate the spread of coronavirus, the beds’ occupants will sleep six feet apart “head to head,” Crumby said.

In another room, stacked mattresses, still wrapped in plastic, awaited relocation.

Two sections of the building will house men, with women in another section. A fourth, smaller area is reserved for couples and non-binary people.

Resembling a school campus, a row of modular buildings play other critical roles – offering rooms for admitting and counseling people, and for laundering clothes and linens.

Residents will be served food prepared by outside vendors and eat in a patio and an indoor dining room. Seven trailers contain restrooms with flushing toilets and showers.

Day-to-day operations, including janitorial services, will be handled by Santa Ana-based Mercy House.

Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, said visitors will not be allowed to walk in and out at will. Rather, they will be brought to the shelter by police or social workers. Whenever they leave, they must take shuttle buses to public transportation stops.

“It’s not a prison,” Haynes said. “People can check out if they want to.”

However, the emergence of the navigation center means Huntington Beach police can enforce anti-encampment ordinances throughout the city. In 2018, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a city cannot “criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors” if nothing else is available to them.

“Huntington Beach has ‘quality of life’ ordinances regarding loitering, panhandling and staying in parks past curfew,” Luna-Reynosa said. “The intention is to enable (all) citizens to enjoy public spaces.”

Homeless rights attorney Brooke Weitzman of Elder Law & Disability Rights Center in Santa Ana said she hopes Huntington Beach police will follow a humanistic approach while enforcing those rules. Her law firm sued the county and cities over the treatment of the homeless, and helped broker a deal that calls for police to make assessments and offer services before writing citations to, or arresting, the unhoused.

“We’ll see when the shelter opens whether they take the health care approach or try to do criminalization,” Weitzman said, adding that because county funding is involved, the Huntington Beach shelter is subject to standards of care that were court-approved in October.

The shelter will not simply fill up overnight. “We have a very deliberate intake procedure that requires at least two hours per person,” said Mercy House grant director Timothy Huynh. “We will admit people gradually.”

Newcomers will shower before getting a bed. Their clothes will be washed and other belongings sanitized. They can bring along pets.

Tent architecture

Called a “tension fabric” design, the tent was created by Sprung Structures – which specializes in ready-to-install shelters. Los Angeles and San Diego are among several cities nationwide with navigation centers made by the Utah-based company.

San Diego turned to the big tents three years ago in the midst of a rampant Hepatitis A outbreak among its street population. Civic leaders saw the tents, purchased by San Diego philanthropists, as a quick solution to get people off the streets and into more sanitary conditions.

The structures have held up well – no leaks and no patching required so far, said Bob McElroy, chief executive of Alpha Project in San Diego, the nonprofit that operates what he calls the “bridge shelters.”

The city spends about $36 a day on each person in two tents that can house up to a combined 474 people. A third tent, previously used by a veterans organization in San Diego, is being shipped to Chula Vista, McElroy said.

When there are maintenance issues, they typically involve the heating and air conditioning system or the continual need to pump out the portable toilets and mobile showers. But the city stays on top of any such concerns, according to McElroy.

This year, bridge shelter residents were temporarily moved into San Diego’s spacious convention center, along with hundreds of other homeless people, as a COVID-19 safety precaution. But McElroy said the Alpha Project residents are expected to return to their downsized tent structures in two weeks.

McElroy, an advocate who decades ago spent the better part of a year on the streets to learn more about homelessness, sees the tents, which he described as “warm and cozy,” as a humane alternative to leaving people outdoors to get sick or to die.

“It beats the bricks,” he said of the tent environment, adding that residents become part of a community.

So far, more than 800 people have transitioned from the tents in San Diego into more permanent housing, McElroy said. There’s an ongoing waiting list of anywhere from 50 to 100 homeless people who want a bed inside and access to the support services that come with it, McElroy said.

“There is no inventory of long-term housing, so there needs to be an alternative to people just being on the street.”

Not a house

Weitzman, the civil rights attorney, maintains that it would be safer — and perhaps cheaper — for Huntington Beach to rent hotel and motel rooms that are going begging because of the pandemic. During a pandemic, she noted, being able to live in your own room with a private bath is less risky than congregate living.

Still, she has heard from homeless people in Huntington Beach who are eager to move into the tent shelter: “We got calls from people months ago saying ‘I saw the ribbon cutting. Can I go to the shelter?’ There are people in Huntington Beach who want to get out of the cold.”

Within five years, the city plans to replace the tent with permanent buildings for affordable housing – the original goal when the city purchased the site in February. Meanwhile, the city will find another location for a permanent homeless shelter.

Navigation centers are meant as way stations where people can get back on their feet and find stable housing over a limited time period. But, Haynes said, Mercy House does not impose “false deadlines.”

“To say ‘two weeks’ or ’90 days,’ or whatever window of time, is not a best practice,” Haynes said. “People arrive with different needs. It takes what it takes.”

Source: Orange County Register

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