U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, right, stops to speak with a homeless man who was cleaning around an a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River Trail in Anaheim, on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. Carter along with county officials and attorneys toured the homeless encampments on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. The two sides reached an agreement in court that includes posting notices on Wednesday that clearing of homeless tent encampments will resume with a deadline of February 20, 2018. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Supervisors voted Monday for Orange County to spend $70.5 million on permanent housing for the homeless, and to create temporary homeless camps in Irvine, and possibly in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel.

The vote comes a week after supervisors committed $20 million toward permanent housing for the homeless. 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 decision came as supervisors admitted that they’ve failed to spend money that’s been available for homeless housing – tens of millions of dollars technically earmarked for mental health funding. Supervisors said they’d been misled by county staff as to what resources were available, though news reports for at least two years have pointed to the availability of up to $186 million.

Staff will advise supervisors in the coming weeks about how the county can acquire land or renovate buildings. It’s unclear when actual construction, or acquisition of housing, might begin.

For homeless advocates, the vote was a welcome surprise.

“It’s really great to see the county finally… take steps to ending the housing crisis in Orange County,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who this year sued the county on behalf of the homeless.

Monday’s vote emerged from negotiations in that ongoing lawsuit, which targeted the county’s efforts to dismantle the homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River Trail. As part of an agreement in that case, the county in February moved nearly 700 people to local motels for 30-day stays.

But as motel vouchers began to expire on Friday, and the county prepared to move people to other temporary shelters, attorneys for the homeless alleged there isn’t enough capacity to shelter all of those who were being moved. Lawyers asked U.S. District Judge David O. Carter – who is presiding in the lawsuit – to intervene.

On Saturday, Carter convened a summit on the issue, bringing together county officials, homeless advocates and others. And on Monday afternoon he chastised county supervisors for failing to spend the mental-health funds they had on hand, pressing them to expand capacity at local shelters. The county board reconvened shortly afterward to approve its new efforts.

The new projects will include an attempt to house up to 200 homeless people living in the Santa Ana Civic Center’s Plaza of the Flags – a population unmentioned in the initial civil rights complaint.
Temporary camps

Supervisors acknowledged that the new homeless camps – which board members said could be tents or other temporary shelters placed on county-owned land – could be unpopular with city officials and residents.

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.

County officials have insisted in recent months that they have enough vacant beds in shelters and healthcare facilities to house all the homeless leaving the riverbed. But Nelson said Monday that many people leaving motels probably won’t accept beds where the county has openings, and that the county will need to create new options to keep people off the streets.

If the county’s stock of temporary shelter beds is filled, the next 200 people would be located to temporary shelters on the Irvine property. If that is filled, the next 100 people would go to Huntington Beach, and the next 100 people would go to Laguna Niguel. Nelson said he expects some homeless people to move to the Irvine land but doesn’t believe other properties will be used.

In response to the county’s action, Irvine Mayor Don Wagner called an emergency city council meeting for Tuesday to consider its options, including the possibility of litigation. He said city officials were unaware of the county board’s plan until the vote.

“I’m very disappointed by the county’s effort to shift a problem to Irvine that it had in Anaheim in the riverbed,” Wagner said.

Orange County’s 2017 homeless count found 199 unsheltered homeless people lived in Irvine, the third highest total of any city in the county.

Board Chairman Andrew Do said the county would work to be “good neighbors” to the cities and operate the facilities much in the way they run Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim, a shelter where people need a referral for admission. But Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who voted against the new temporary homeless shelters, noted that it could be more difficult to stop comings and goings on open land than it is at Bridges, which is a closed facility.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said she has “grave concerns” about the Laguna Niguel location, noting the proximity to a library and a preschool where “kids are coming and going all day.”

In response, Nelson alleged that other portions of the county had skirted their responsibility to address homelessness, in part by pushing people into Santa Ana.
Permanent housing

The board’s decision to commit $70.5 million for permanent housing is part of a larger regional trend in which government officials are considering longer-term housing options to address a spike in homelessness that has roiled Southern California.

In February, cities across Orange County supported an effort to double the capacity of permanent housing for homeless people by adding an additional 2,700 units. A 2017 UC Irvine study found that county taxpayers could save $42 million annually in health care, law enforcement and other expenses by adopting a housing-first model to get chronically homeless people off the streets.

Judge Carter has in recent weeks accused county officials of hoarding funds that could be spent to help homeless people – allegations which county staff members denied.

Yet on Monday, county supervisors admitted otherwise, acknowledging that they had “hundreds of millions” of unspent mental-health funding that they stockpiled in recent years as homelessness ballooned. The admission came within weeks of a Feb. 27 state audit that found many counties in California had unspent mental-health funds, and that Orange County was stashing the second most in the state. County supervisors on March 13 ordered an audit of that money to determine why it had gone unspent.

In all, officials said the county has $184 million in unspent, available Mental Health Services Act funds from last year, and another $193 million in funding coming in this fiscal year. Of that amount, Nelson estimated $140 million could be spent on housing for the homeless.

Do said he had met with the county’s Heath Care Agency staff at least six times to ask what funding was available and that county staff members had misled him through “willful negligence” if not intentional misrepresentation. Spitzer agreed, holding up a 2015 document about potential funding sources to help the homeless, which made no mention of the mental-health funds.

“Three years ago we could have addressed this problem and created beds with the hundreds of millions of dollars we didn’t know anything about,” Spitzer said.

Officials with the Health Care Agency have pointed to upgrades in mental health services and said some of the supposedly unspent money is planned for future projects.

News reports from recent years have repeatedly drawn attention to the unspent money. The investigative news agency, Voice of OC, first reported in 2015 that the county had a $119 million surplus of Mental Health Services Act funds. The Orange County Register reported on the issue in June 2017 and Jan. 2018. And Voice of OC wrote another story about the money on March 3.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of the proposed temporary homeless shelter in Huntington Beach. It is planned for 18131 Gothard St.

Staff Writer Theresa Walker contributed to this report