Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do said today marked the first day in years that the city's civic center was devoid of transients, who have been relocated out of the area.
"Since I started clerking at the courthouse 31 years ago, I do not recall a day there was no encampment in the civic center — this is truly historic,'' Do said of the Plaza of the Flags next to the Central Justice Center courthouse.
"It is a milestone day," Pulido said. "We have a long way to go, but we've come along way."
The city has an ordinance in place prohibiting tents and other camping equipment in the plaza, and gates have been erected to keep anyone from returning. But Do noted that the entire civic center, going two blocks in every direction from the Plaza of the Flags, was cleared of the homeless.
Pulido guesses about 75 percent of the transients in the civic center accepted shelter and other services from the county.
"There was a gentleman there saying he had lived at the Plaza of the Flags for eight years and that he's kind of sad to have that chapter end. But I'm happy to see that chapter end because I think he's going to have a better life, and so is everyone else at the Plaza of the Flags and so are the people negatively impacted by that," the mayor said.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing a federal lawsuit challenging the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances, turned his attention to clearing out the Plaza of the Flags area after county officials got most of the transients camped out on the Santa Ana riverbed into area shelters and other housing.
County officials were concerned they would not have enough emergency shelter beds, especially if the cold-weather armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton were closed for the spring. That led officials to consider erecting large tents — technically known as sprung structures — in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, but that proposal incensed local officials who threatened to sue.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, convinced Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials to keep the armories open for another 90 days.
Do said a trip to the state Capitol led him to believe that Orange County has gotten the attention of lawmakers on the issue of homelessness.
"I just came back from Sacramento and met with about 15 legislators, and they had all heard about what we're doing here in Orange County and the feedback I'm getting is how proud they are that we are taking on this difficult issue and what we have been able to accomplish."
Do said he suspects federal judges elsewhere in the state have taken notice of how Carter "has been able to assist and in many ways facilitate the collaboration between the cities and the county."
Pulido said he has been lobbying the governor and other state lawmakers to house some local transients at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, where officials erupted when they got wind last month that Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson had asked Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, to inquire about the availability of the center for that purpose.
The Costa Mesa City Council subsequently voted to "strongly oppose" any proposal to house some of the area's homeless in the state-operated center for the developmentally disabled, which is ticketed to be shut down in the next few years.
Pulido sees it as an ideal place to care for mentally ill transients. "I asked them all to please help us with the hospital in Costa Mesa, Fairview hospital, because some of the homeless are mentally ill and that's the reason they're homeless. They can't work, they are mentally ill," Pulido said.
"We need a hospital for the mentally ill. I told the governor that we have one here, and I asked them to work with us to try to make use of it. Currently it has 1,000 beds and we're only using 25 of those beds. We should take the homeless off the streets and put some of them in the hospital."
Pulido said the city has about 1,600 more transients in Santa Ana, "which is way too many, and we're going to continue to take it down step by step."
Large groups of transients still camp out in the southern part of the city around railroad tracks and industrial buildings, Pulido said.
"We definitely need a shelter and we're looking at buying a warehouse in an industrial area and make it by appointment only so we don't have people loitering and negatively impacting neighborhoods, but take them off the streets and give them services," Pulido said.
County officials assessed 234 transients in the civic center plaza while clearing out the area of the encampments. About 135 declined any services or alternative sheltering.
Since social workers went sent out to "engage" with transients on the riverbed and the civic center in July, officials have reached out to 1,182 people. Of that number, 58 percent accepted shelter or other services while 42 percent said no thanks.
Orange County supervisors will hold a special board meeting on Tuesday to discuss updates on the homeless sheltering. A group of mayors from south Orange County cities have a private meeting scheduled for Thursday. That meeting was called in response to Carter asking officials in southern county cities to shoulder more of the burden of finding shelter for transients in their cities instead of taking them to facilities in Santa Ana, Fullerton and Anaheim.