If all goes as planned, two year-round homeless shelters will open in the next couple of weeks in north Orange County – one in Buena Park, set to begin operating next week, and the other in Fullerton by mid-July.
Between them, the shelters could provide about 300 beds for individuals and couples, along with an array of services to help end homelessness. Everything from assistance with physical and mental health care and addressing substance abuse disorders, to connections to social services, family reunification and employment assistance will be available. So will guidance for those seeking more permanent housing.
The two new centers are the latest additions to a growing network of city- and county-funded homeless shelters springing from court settlements in the 2018 Orange County Catholic Worker case. So far, the landmark federal lawsuit has led to more than a half-dozen shelters opening – in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Tustin, Costa Mesa, Placentia, and, beyond Orange County, in Bellflower – with more planned.
Just last week, Santa Ana announced it would open a permanent 200-bed shelter this fall as part of its settlement in the court case. A contested 425-bed shelter to be built and operated by the county is also under construction in Santa Ana.
Costa Mesa secured a location near John Wayne Airport for its permanent shelter and will continue to house 50 homeless people at a temporary site until the center’s move-in date, expected early next year. Huntington Beach continues to look for a resolution.
The Buena Park and Fullerton shelters, each planned for up to 150 beds, will provide a housing alternative for dozens of people now living in tents pitched on the sidewalks of Stanton, near Katella and Western avenues. Over the past six months or so, the area, a short walk from City Hall, has become home to some of the largest – and most visible – street encampments in Orange County.
Merchants and residents in Stanton want the tents and the people who live in them gone as soon as possible. Advocates insist on a humane approach to relocating those homeless people to a safer environment. They are backed by the authority of the settlement agreements, and by the still-watchful eye of U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who continues to oversee the lawsuit.
With an estimated 60 to 100 people spread out among several Stanton street encampments – along the sidewalks of Katella and Mercantile avenues and Industrial Way, and near the locked gate of a nearby flood control channel – it is all unfolding under health and safety protocols intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The so-called “exit day” – when the homeless people must be packed up and gone for good – is set for July 15. That’s when the Fullerton Navigation & Recuperative Care Center, which could open as soon as July 6, is expected to be fully operating, said Donald Dermit, an Anaheim pastor, who focuses on street people. Dermit has been tasked by Judge Carter to help prepare the tent occupants for the move and persuade them to try the new shelters.
Dermit, affiliated with The Rock church in Anaheim, served in the same informal role during the 2018 clearing of the Santa Ana River Bike Trail encampments at the heart of the Catholic Worker suit and earlier this year in Placentia, which opened the most recent new shelter in Orange County at the end of March and dismantled encampments near West Crowther Avenue at the 57 Freeway overpass.
Dermit spent half the day talking to both homeless people and business owners in Stanton on Wednesday, June 24, during a weekly cleaning of the encampment sites, which has included pressure washing the sidewalks. He planned to be there again later in the week.
“I’m hoping they’ll believe it,” he said of the deadline to leave. “It’s happening, no ifs, ands or buts.
“They need to downsize and be ready to go into the shelters. If not, they’re going to have to move on.”
Only people referred by outreach workers from the Orange County Health Care Agency, the nonprofit homeless services provider CityNet or law enforcement officers can get into the shelters.
Construction began on the $14.3 million Buena Park Navigation Center on Caballero Boulevard in July 2019. A coalition of north Orange County cities – Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Cypress, Fullerton, La Habra, La Palma, Orange, Placentia, Villa Park, Stanton and Yorba Linda – contributed funding for the facility, which is intended to only serve homeless people in that area. It will be operated by Mercy House.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house is scheduled for Monday, June 29.
Beds in the Buena Park shelter will be separated by 6-foot partitions to be specially outfitted with plexiglass on top, Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes said. Other COVID-19 precautions will include temperature checks, hourly cleanings in common areas, and on-site medical care. Anyone who tests positive for coronavirus or shows symptoms can be placed in a Project Roomkey hotel or motel.
The court settlements require cities involved in the agreements to house 60 percent of their 2017 Point in Time unsheltered homeless population counts, a number acceptable to the judge, before they can enforce anti-camping ordinances.
In addition to beds at the Buena Park shelter, Stanton also will be able to refer homeless people to the Fullerton shelter.
Stanton and Fullerton, facing more pressing homelessness issues than their neighbors, each put in $500,000 toward a facility under construction on West Commonwealth Avenue that will be for the use of those two cities. Each city has access to 45 general use beds; another 60 beds are dedicated for people who have no place to recover from health issues. Illumination Foundation will operate the site.
Business and property owners in Stanton have lodged numerous complaints about vandalism and other alleged criminal activity, including suspected drug sales, along with other safety and health hazards posed by the mini-tent cities. (There are no public restrooms or portable toilets for the homeless people to relieve themselves, and no handwashing stations.)
John Ferguson owns a Volkswagen parts and repair shop on Mercantile Avenue. He said there had long been a few street people who slept on the corner, but not in tents. The encampments started late last year, fueled in part by homeless people being chased from camps they’d set up in nearby railroad tracks.
It’s been a nightmare for the nearby merchants, Ferguson said. He described how some people broke into sprinkler lines to get water and noted that electrical boxes have been pillaged so extension cords could be plugged in. He also referenced piles of trash and rotting food, and “puddles of who knows what floating around.” Not to mention open drug use and needles strewn about.
“Fifty cars a day pull up and do some sort of transaction out the windows,” Ferguson said.
Business owners like him, he said, are skeptical about the new shelters: “The city keeps giving us different dates.”
Lawyers involved in the Catholic Worker lawsuit also were out at the Stanton tent sites on Wednesday, a designated trash pickup day. They were on hand to ensure that the homeless people were not issued citations or had their belongings confiscated. The legal advocates began showing up on trash day about a month ago after several homeless people were arrested.
“Now, we go and watch,” said one of the attorneys, Brooke Weitzman of Elder Law and Disability Rights Center in Santa Ana.
The lawyers intend to be at the camps when the final moves take place, as do other advocates who have long been engaged with the homeless people. Based on experience, Weitzman has no doubt that most of the homeless people will go into the shelters.
“Placentia filled up as soon as (the shelter in that city) opened,” she said. She added that other shelters in the county are at or near capacity.
But Weitzman wants to make sure the shelters are operated in a manner that will keep occupants and workers safe, with proper social distancing and other health precautions taken into account. She also raised questions about what’s going to happen beyond giving people beds in a shelter.
Where is the promised permanent housing? The pandemic will make a housing shortage even worse, Weitzman said.
“A massive pipeline of people are about to become homeless because evictions are going to start,” she said.
“This may be a time to come back together (in court) and say, ‘OK, if this is going to be successful, what is the next step?”
Source: Orange County Register