Homeless making Civic Center unsafe
By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist
At Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana, an employee walking into work earlier this month stepped on a used hypodermic needle.
On a different day, a work crew of plumbers making repairs outside the courthouse was attacked by rock-throwing residents of a nearby homeless encampment.
Professionals entering the south side of the courthouse walk past a bush where homeless residents dump feces and urine from their bathroom buckets.
Santa Ana’s Civic Center is home to a county courthouse, Santa Ana City Hall and library and a plaza of county buildings where the public comes to do everything from obtaining marriage licenses and paying property taxes to attending public meetings and court hearings.
And it is also the center of a homeless encampment that is engulfing the public space outside.
While there have been some efforts to address the underlying social, health and economic conditions that are causing the proliferation of homelessness in the Civic Center, the conditions on the sidewalks for the public and workers in the area have remained virtually unchanged in any meaningful way. Most recently, construction fences on one part of the Civic Center area only shifted the population who lived there closer to the courthouse.
A community and social order has formed among the homeless residents. Some are struggling to find work and services and get off the streets. Others are there by choice, or are coping with mental illness or drug addiction. Their community provides a sad reminder of our collective failures to care for the least among us.
The encampment also represents a health and safety threat that can no longer be ignored. Court and county employees arriving to work regularly see human feces, smell urine and observe drug paraphernalia. They are verbally abused and have been physically assaulted.
In a letter this month to county and Santa Ana officials, Superior Court CEO Alan Carlson said area conditions are now causing the court to lose potential jurors who fear for their safety.
“Recently, a mother called on behalf of her 18-year-old daughter, requesting her jury service be transferred to Harbor Justice Center because she did not feel comfortable having her daughter report to jury service in Santa Ana,” Carlson wrote. “A number of elderly potential jurors have expressed concern over their safety, indicating that walking past the homeless community is a “scary” experience for them. Numerous other potential jurors have contacted the court, indicating an unwillingness to travel to Santa Ana, expressing concerns about crime and personal safety.”
When the discovery of a suspicious device caused the courthouse to be evacuated this month, employees were directed to meet and wait in a designated safety area – an area that now is surrounded by piles of possessions belonging to homeless people.
The elected officials, judges and executives who make decisions about how to address these issues have expressed concerns about conditions outside. But they all park under the public buildings and use elevators to their offices, shielded from the same exposure the public and workers must confront.
On behalf of the countless people who visit the Civic Center each year, and the hundreds of workers who provide access to justice and services that keep our communities safe and healthy, we urge action before it’s too late.
The worker who stepped on a hypodermic needle was lucky. It became lodged in the rubber sole of his shoe and didn’t pierce his foot. Let’s not wait to see what happens next time.
Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: May 27, 2016