Orange County Scraps Homeless Shelter Plan

By Aneesah Akbar

Orange County (OC) supervisors unanimously voted on March 27 to rescind a three-city homeless shelter plan previously proposed to combat the growing issue of homelessness. Originally approved on March 19, the plan would have placed up to 400 homeless people from Santa Ana and other parts of the county in each of three new shelters in Irvine, Laguna Niguel, and Huntington Beach. The Irvine shelter would have been located near the Orange County Great Park near the Portola area.

This plan is strongly supported by Santa Ana officials, and is largely a result of the growing issue of homelessness in Santa Ana, specifically. According to the Orange County Register, studies have recorded up to 1,030 people without shelter within the city, especially concentrated in and around the Santa Ana Civic Center and Santa Ana River. Santa Ana has made accommodations for these people, including  opening the Courtyard shelter the previous year and allowing a tent community to remain in the Civic Center area. But as the homeless population continues to rise, the city has begun efforts to distribute them throughout the county.

Santa Ana’s proposed plan also includes not bringing additional homeless people into Santa Ana from other cities, and asks for monetary contributions from neighboring cities to help alleviate  costs associated with a large homeless population, which has been recorded at $17.4 million per year.

Homelessness is a complex phenomenon … caused by multiple factors such as post-traumatic stress, chronic and acute illness, addiction, income insecurity, domestic violence, lack of affordable housing, and lack of comprehensive mental health services,” said Dr. Mojgan Sami, a public health professor at UCI. “It will take all cities in Orange County working together to address homelessness. Prevention is always better than ‘treatment,’ and requires a multi-sector approach … If we cannot prevent homelessness, our first instinct should be compassion, not fear.”

In OC, the burden of homelessness has been distributed unevenly for several decades. Fullerton and Anaheim are the only other two cities out of the 34 in OC to have set up emergency homeless facilities. According to the Orange County Register, Santa Ana mayor Miguel Pulido has said that many cities are not doing their part and legal action might be necessary to “nudge them.”

Don Wagner, mayor of Irvine, told the Orange County Register that he plans to work directly with South County mayors to determine what further actions should be taken to reduce homelessness in OC. He emphasized that Irvine has already allowed for thousands of acres for the housing of low- and extremely low-income families, with more on the way. He added, “For Santa Ana to demand more … is just a cover for failures by folks in Santa Ana to appropriately deal with the problem.”

For Irvine, a relatively new upper-middle class city, the building of a homeless shelter would drop the property value of some of the highest priced areas in Orange County. The idea has faced substantial resistance, with 250 Irvine residents gathering in City Hall Plaza last month in protest.

Ali Al-Hakeem, a first-year UCI business administration student, empathizes with the protesters.

“I think building a homeless shelter in Irvine is a good idea in theory, but I understand why people are upset. The reason most people move to Irvine is for the sake of their children’s education. But nobody wants to send their child to a school a few blocks down from a homeless shelter.”

It is likely that OC supervisors will soon vote again on creating a homeless shelter in at least one Orange County city in an attempt to distribute the overwhelming burden on Santa Ana while also attempting to keep as many county residents satisfied as possible. Some form of action will likely be taken soon to prevent Santa Ana from having to take extreme measures.

As Dr. Sami concluded, “We must work together for long-term solutions through multi-sector (and multi-city) efforts that holistically address all the determinants of homelessness so we can prevent it in the future.”