County in Need of Homeless Plan
By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist
I recently wrote about homelessness in the Civic Center area in Santa Ana. The county has now created a new executive position dedicated to addressing homeless issues and filled that position with a director who we are told will have the authority and support to impact real change for Orange County’s homeless community. She is expected to be knowledgeable and experienced and is collecting information to conduct an assessment and develop a strategic plan.
This is a positive step to address the issues of homelessness in Orange County – one that will clearly take time and planning. Still, there continue to be more urgent threats to the public, workers and homeless population in the county’s Civic Center that should be addressed more immediately, as this important work continues.
Anyone who has visited the Civic Center has seen piles of possessions belonging to homeless residents papering the open space near our courts, the public library and the offices where county residents go to access services, such as getting marriage licenses, paying taxes or attending public meetings.
Some things have changed along the encampment in recent months. The county has erected a fence around its property on the east side of Ross Street in the Civic Center, forcing the homeless people who live there to relocate to the west side of Ross Street, where the Superior Court, the Santa Ana Library and the city of Santa Ana offices are located.
The result is an exacerbation of the many challenges faced by the individuals who constitute the homeless population and by those workers who encounter them on their way to and from their jobs or by the members of the public in the course of their business with local government.
For example, the men, women and children of the Civic Center homeless community have daily human hygiene needs that continue to be neglected. There are no portable toilets in the Civic Center area, and access to restrooms in the surrounding public facilities is often restricted, particularly at night and in the early morning. The result is predictable a proliferation of urine and feces that is both offensive and constitutes a public health danger.
Another condition for which there are cost-effective solutions is the lack of storage facilities for the few possessions the homeless have or a plan for addressing this issue. They are unable to leave their belongings unguarded due to the risk of theft. This creates an environment that opens the door to conflicts, including physical altercations, and presents a significant obstacle to finding and holding a job.
OCEA members who work in the Civic Center have come forward with alarming reports of physical assaults, verbal threats and abuse, and a wide variety of health and safety risks, all encountered just walking to and from their parked cars and their work locations.
Members of the public have voiced similar complaints. For example, prospective jurors have requested that they be allowed to report for jury duty at court locations other than Santa Ana because of concerns over their health and safety.
This is all avoidable.
The county, courts and city of Santa Ana can take some simple actions that would have a significant positive impact on the health and safety of the Civic Center area. Maintain existing lighting so the public and workers can walk safely from their cars into municipal buildings. Maintain a reasonable cleaning schedule and install and maintain portable restrooms to minimize health threats posed by urine and feces, and related vermin issues. Make regular safety sweeps of parking structures and provide a consistent law enforcement presence during regular business hours to ensure public safety.
OCEA sincerely hopes the county will be able to develop a strategic plan that helps to resolve the many challenges the homeless community faces and the impacts to our public space. But strategic plans take time, both to develop and implement. And safety and health risks exist that must be addressed today – for the public who comes to utilize county services, the workers who provide those services, and the homeless residents who are living at the Civic Center.
Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: July 8, 2016