By Breeana Greenberg
A cold weather shelter will open in Santa Ana this winter after U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter recently ruled late that the county can open the shelter on an emergency basis. While the emergency shelter aims to serve homeless individuals across all of Orange County, homeless advocates say the burden to travel to the shelter will prevent those in need from using it.
The ruling came after Carter had initially paused the opening of the cold weather shelter at the Santa Ana Armory located on Warner Avenue. He had called for a hearing on Oct. 21 to further discuss the site and the City of Santa Ana’s request for a temporary restraining order.
As Santa Ana already operates a year-round shelter with 200 beds and the county operates a year-round shelter with 425 beds in the city, it argued that “the Sana Ana community is being asked to shoulder most of the responsibility and impacts of caring for Orange County’s unhoused population.”
Ahead of the hearing, the Santa Ana City Attorney’s office sent a letter to Carter noting that more shelter beds are “absolutely necessary” in South Orange County, as recognized by the Orange County Grand Jury’s recent report published on June 23.
Though the court specifically requested that “Supervisors representing any portion of the South SPA (Service Planning Area) be in attendance,” none were present. Supervisor Lisa Bartlett was unavailable to comment and Supervisor Don Wagner stated that he had a conflict with a family wedding.
Wagner added that it is “unclear to me whether there will be any impacts on the South County cities from Judge Carter’s decision. The cold weather shelter will not be in a South County city and it is my understanding that the homeless litigation in those cities is being heard by another judge.”
In a press release, the City of Sana Ana wrote that it was “disheartened and disappointed” by Carter’s decision.
Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento added that “although I have tremendous respect for the Court, the drastic reversal by Judge Carter to allow the County of Orange to force yet another homeless shelter on the people of Santa Ana is a slap in the face of our community.”
The press release added that the county “only has plans to proceed with a cold weather shelter in Sana Ana and stated at Friday’s hearing that it has no plans to open a cold weather shelter in any of the other 33 cities in Orange County.”
In the letter from the Santa Ana City Attorney’s office, the city added that “the County has historically insisted there is a greater need to locate an emergency shelter in City of Santa Ana. This is a familiar narrative that is simply not supported by the facts and to which the City does not submit, especially when there is abundant property in South Orange County for shelter purposes as required by Senate Bill 2.”
Santa Ana pointed to San Clemente, Lake Forest, Laguna Niguel, Newport Beach and Irvine as larger South County cities with potential sites for an emergency cold weather shelter.
“Shelter beds in or near these areas would offer a far more humane and safer option for individuals experiencing homelessness in these areas, as opposed for them to travel great distances for shelter in the Central and North Service Planning Areas,” the Santa Ana City Attorney’s office wrote.
Though the city argued that sheltering the county’s homelessness is a “regional and countywide issue that every city in Orange County should help address,” Sarmiento said that “the City and people of Santa Ana shouldn’t have to take on this responsibility and the impacts to our streets, neighborhoods and businesses time and again, while more affluent cities do nothing.”
With the cold weather emergency shelter located in Santa Ana, homeless individuals living in South Orange County are less likely to take advantage of the shelter during cold or stormy nights, Maura Mikulec, a member of Welcoming Neighbors Home, said.
After making the trip from South Orange County, there’s a chance homeless individuals may still be turned away once they’ve reached Santa Ana, Mikulec added.
“Last year, the shelter was first come first serve, so what happens is there’s bus stops, so you have to go to this bus stop or another bus stop to get on the little shuttle bus to take you over to the shelter,” Mikulec said. “But what happens is the bus driver actually has the responsibility for determining when the shelter is at capacity.”
Taking advantage of the Santa Ana shelter means leaving their community where they may have family, friends or resources, and may not have a way to get back, Mikulec said.
“If it’s just to get out of the elements for the night, it’s too much,” Mikulec said. “It’s too much to ask to get all the way up to Sana Ana, then leave in the morning, and then they’re not in their community, they’re not around any of the people they know, the businesses that they rely on for different things.”
“People are not going to leave their community and go that far away just for a night out of the elements,” Mikulec continued.
During a Jan. 18 San Clemente City Council meeting, Adam Atamian, manager of Code Compliance and Park Rangers, noted that the city had offered bus passes and transportation maps to the cold weather shelter’s pick-up locations but, “unfortunately, during the month of December (2021), we did not have any takers on that opportunity.”
According to Atamian, the bus ride to the shelter from San Clemente is approximately two and two and a half hours.
Mikulec said that an effect of running the county’s emergency shelter in Santa Ana may be that South County cities will not be motivated to do more for the area’s homeless population.
“I think a lot of the powers that be will think, ‘OK, good, so there’s going to be a cold weather shelter in Santa Ana, so we’re covered,’” Mikulec said. “And they’re going to think they’ve done their job because there’s something being provided, but obviously, people aren’t going to go.”
Mikulec added that while shelters “may be important in inclement weather, it doesn’t end anyone’s homelessness and it doesn’t lead to permanent solutions in most cases,” pointing to data from the county’s Continuum of Care.
From July 1 to Sept. 30, of the 2,381 homeless individuals that visited emergency shelters, 104 individuals transitioned into permanent housing from the shelter. Additionally, 155 people returned to living on the streets and 208 left for another shelter during that period.
“It’s important in the moment for the person to get out of the elements,” Mikulec said. “There’s a place for shelters, but it’s not what people think. It’s not a path out of homelessness.”
Those looking to learn more about the county’s cold weather shelter can visit the OC Health Care Agency website for more information.
Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org