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Orange County Was Set to House the Homeless, and There Was a Popular Revolt

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 3/31/2018 Ian Lovett

a group of people sitting at a picnic table © frederic j. brown/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

SANTA ANA, Calif.—Faced with a growing homeless population and a federal judge’s order to find shelter for hundreds of people living on the streets, Orange County lawmakers recently devised a plan: Open as many as three temporary shelters across this coastal county.

It didn’t last a week.

On Tuesday, county supervisors scrapped the plan for the shelters, following days of furious blowback from residents who accused them of trying to erect “tent cities” that would turn upscale neighborhoods into skid rows.

As homeless populations continue to climb in cities along the West Coast—fueled by the dwindling stock of affordable housing—the battle in Orange County, a wealthy enclave south of Los Angeles, demonstrates one of the enduring challenges of getting people off the streets: Few communities will agree to house them.

The question of where to shelter the homeless is now pitting Orange County’s 34 cities against one another, with each arguing that temporary homeless shelters don’t belong there, and blaming the county for failing to tackle the problem until it was too late.

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In response to a federal lawsuit filed in January a judge ordered county officials to find shelter for hundreds of people who were cleared out of an encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed last month.

The county agreed to provide 30-day motel vouchers for nearly 700 people, and hoped to move them into shelters and other housing within the month. Many of the motel vouchers expire this week, and no one is sure where those staying in the motels will go.

Shawn Nelson, an Orange County Supervisor, said the hope was that after the judicial order, local cities would help the county address the crisis, “but there are no volunteers.”

All three cities where temporary shelters had been proposed—Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel—threatened to file their own lawsuits against the county if the plan were enacted, arguing that it placed an unfair burden on their communities.

On Tuesday, more than 1,000 protesters surrounded the county’s board of supervisors meeting in Santa Ana—the latest in a series of heated meetings on the issue this month—waving signs that read: “No Tent City in Irvine” and “No Drugs Near Our Schools.”

During the meeting, officials from cities throughout the county argued that they, too, shouldn’t host temporary shelters, citing the proximity of proposed sites to public parks, schools, day-care facilities and libraries.

“We’ve taken the brunt,” said Valerie Amezcua, president of the school board in Santa Ana, one of the less affluent cities in the county, where homeless encampments already dot sidewalks.

“Our kids can’t use the libraries. Our kids go to school in the morning, and somebody is sleeping in front of our schools,” Ms. Amezcua said at the meeting.

Christina L. Shea, the mayor pro tem of Irvine, said in an interview that Orange County had waited too long to deal with the crisis. “Because the county has chosen to close their eyes and not solve the problem, all of a sudden they’re saying, just build a tent here next to $1 million homes,” she said.

Ultimately, county officials not only backed away from the plan they had ostensibly supported only last week, but also apologized for it.

“I’m sorry—we’re all sorry,” said Todd Spitzer, a county supervisor who represents Irvine. “We need to put roofs over people’s heads, not tents.”

County and city officials will meet with the federal Judge David O. Carter next week to discuss options.

Other municipalities throughout southern California also are struggling to find places to shelter their homeless residents.

In Los Angeles—where the homeless population ballooned to 57,794 people in 2017, a 23% increase over the previous year—voters have approved a $1.2 billion property-tax increase to build about 10,000 housing units for the homeless during the next 10 years.

Finding locations to build those housing units has been difficult, however. In December, a plan to erect a 49-unit shelter—with half of the space reserved for people with mental illness—in east Los Angeles was abandoned amid strong local opposition.

In Orange County, the homeless population stood at 4,792 last year, according to government data, a 13% increase since 2013.

Despite the comparatively small homeless population, advocates said Orange County has done virtually nothing to address the issue. The county operates a total of 1,140 shelter beds during the winter, and fewer in the summertime, in addition to shelters run by nonprofit groups.

“Instead of investing in permanent supportive housing or affordable-housing solutions, the county has invested minimal resources for emergency shelters,” said Eve Garrow, a homeless-policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Law enforcement swoops in when encampments get large and tells everyone to move along, except there is really no space for them to go.”

Orange County also voted this year to spend more than $90 million on permanent housing for the mentally ill.

Andrew Do, another county supervisor, said he wasn’t sure where those staying in motels would go after the vouchers expired this week. Some, he said, might remain in motels longer. The county, however, would have to find more solutions, he added.

“Cities have to step up,” Mr. Do said. “The answer is not to say, ‘Not in my neighborhood.’ ”

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