Battle over what to do about the homeless continues in Orange County

Last month authorities cleared out an illegal and dangerous homeless camp along the Santa Ana River in Orange County, California. Some 700 men and women were told to pack up their belongings but left behind over 400 tons of garbage and a couple tons of human waste. Many of the homeless living along the river were given 30-day vouchers at local hotels, which means those vouchers are now starting to expire.

The judge who allowed the river camp to be cleared out is now demanding the county do something for the people whose hotel vouchers are running out. Just over a week ago, the judge held an emergency meeting with everyone involved to try to find a more permanent solution. From the LA Times:

To find solutions, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter invited all parties to Saturday’s hearing — along with mayors and city managers from all of Orange County’s 34 cities — because homelessness, he said, is a countywide issue.

“Without appropriate resources, unsheltered individuals returning to the streets, sidewalks, plazas and parks in the cities of Orange County could be at risk, simply because of their homeless status, of being criminalized under anti-camping and anti-loitering laws,” Carter wrote in the hearing invitation.

The county responded by offering to spend up to $90 million to find a new location or locations for the homeless. County Supervisors suggested housing people in 3 new homeless camps on county land in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel. From the OC Register:

The combined $90 million is likely the single largest appropriation ever committed by the county to fight homelessness, and signals a shift in the county’s strategy to solve the growing issue…

The three camps mentioned by supervisors could be located: on 100 acres of county-owned land just south of the Great Park in Irvine, along Marine Way; at 18131 Gothard St. in Huntington Beach, and on 22-acres of vacant county land near Laguna Niguel City Hall.

“We have to go with (land) we have,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who last year proposed opening temporary homeless shelters at the Irvine and Huntington Beach locations but couldn’t get other supervisors to agree.

Now that the potential locations have been announced, the OC Register reports the three cities are fighting over having these new tent encampments set up on public land:

On Tuesday, two days after learning that the county might put temporary homeless camps on county land in their cities, hundreds of residents protested at council meetings in Irvine and Laguna Niguel. Both cities voted to sue the county, and Huntington Beach officials said they’re considering a lawsuit.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson told Carter that no community is willing to accept a homeless shelter, and the supervisors’ three-city plan was “the best choice among a series of bad choices.” But he noted that the Irvine property – 108 acres just south of the Great Park – is zoned for a homeless facility, and that the county listed a homeless shelter as a possible use in a 2003 agreement between the city and county.

People in Irvine, an upscale community full of working professionals, are angry that they seem poised to get stuck with most or all of the homeless now. Hundreds of residents showed up to protest the plan yesterday. From CBS LA:

“I have nine grandchildren. I have three grown kids and I would never allow this kind of thing next to my home,” said Irvine Vice Mayor Christina Shea.

A crowd of locals spent Sunday morning not at the park, as they say they often do, but across the street saying this is no place for the county’s swelling homeless population — especially since those who want help have already been placed.

“I hate to say this but the homeless that are planning to come here really represent the worst of them because they’re the ones that aren’t following the rules, that don’t want to give up the drugs, that don’t want to accept services or housing,” said Irvine Commissioner Anthony Kuo. “And to put those across the street from sports fields and a senior community in my mind is just an incompatible use.”

But these same problems are present in other locations. The Huntington Beach site is also right next to a sports field and the public library, both of which are always full of kids. I know because this site is only a little over a mile from my house.

The bottom line is that no one wants a tent camp popping up in their neighborhood. It’s not just the mess that it’s likely to create, it’s the fact that many of these people are serious drug users who will attract drug dealers to the area. And these unemployed people are going to find some way to feed their habit (and themselves), which means a lot more petty crime for businesses and residents to deal with. There is no good place to put people who are unable or unwilling to care for themselves because of drugs or drinking or mental illness or some combination of all three.

But the real problem, which the judge overseeing this doesn’t seem to have considered, is that once the county spends $90 million to help these 700 needy people, you can bet another 700 (or probably many times that number) will show up wanting the same deal. In fact, we’ve already seen that happen when the River encampment was cleared out last month. People heard through the grapevine that 30-day hotel vouchers were being given out and they showed up from other areas to claim them.

Now imagine what will happen when people learn that some kind of free, permanent housing is on offer. There are thousands of homeless people in Orange County and LA who will respond to that call. What’s the judge’s plan for housing them? The real problem with the current plan to fix Orange County’s homeless problem is that it ensures the problem will get worse.