Newsom Offers Vacant Land For Homeless Shelters, But Local Officials Worry: Who Will Pay?

Will, who provided his first name only, sits on the sidewalk across the street from LAC+USC Medical Center to panhandle for money until he has enough to go to McDonalds down the block. Will has been homeless since he arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago in 1982. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
Will, who provided his first name only, sits on the sidewalk across the street from LAC+USC Medical Center to panhandle for money until he has enough to go to McDonalds down the block. Will has been homeless since he arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago in 1982. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

By Nigel Duara, CalMatters

It was two hours after dusk in Santa Ana, and the temperature had dropped 10 degrees since sundown. A line of men and women bundled against the chill curled past the National Guard Armory’s entrance, around the side of the building and into the parking lot, about 150 in all. Inside, the layout looked like something provided to evacuees after a disaster: row after row of black sleeping pads, lined up edge to edge.

But for the people staying here, this is not temporary shelter: Each year for the last decade, from mid-December until the funding runs out in April or May, the same group calls the concrete floor and five bathrooms home.

This is Orange County’s answer to its growing, highly concentrated homeless population. On this day in January, the elderly, people with disabilities and a family were let in early and picked out their sleeping mats first. A trio of men, lined up at least an hour before the shelter doors opened, trickled in with camping gear.

Every December, when the shelter opens, “I’m always amazed. It’s like the first day of school,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, the nonprofit that operates the 10,000-square-foot armory shelter. “Everyone says hello like they’re old friends.”This shelter —on state land, run by a nonprofit agency —should serve as the basic model of what Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for across the state.

On Jan. 8, Newsom issued an executive order that tasked state agencies with evaluating excess land for use as possible emergency homeless shelters. A state map created last year shows more than 1,000 parcels, ranging from a quarter-acre near a San Diego freeway to 70 acres next to a minimum-security prison in Chino.

But the Santa Ana armory has become a harbinger of the problems that mayors and county executives foresee with new emergency shelters in their backyards. Pushback from local leaders Last summer, a federal judge lauded Orange County for a cooperative plan to avoid arresting homeless people while directing them toward county housing and health services.

The judge called the agreement between the county and homeless activists a model for the rest of the state, if not the nation.

The peace barely lasted into the new year. Santa Ana, the county’s poorest city, filed suit in January, alleging that three other Orange County cities are dropping off their homeless population at the armory in a community that already has a disproportionate amount of shelters.

The county has a 400-bed shelter in downtown Santa Ana, with plans to expand it, and the city has a 200-bed shelter.“In recent years, the city of Santa Ana has been compelled to spend millions of dollars from its general fund to address health and safety concerns attributable to the homeless population now living here,” the city said in the lawsuit. “That money would otherwise have been spent on providing core services to residents.”In several cities and counties contacted by CalMatters, local leaders expressed concern about the governor’s plan to open land for shelters in their jurisdictions. Some see it as ineffective and unfair —offering state land but not paying for the costs associated with a shelter.

The elected leaders say they’ve received little information about how the shelters will operate or who will operate them. They don’t know how people will get to and from the sites. They don’t know how neighbors might react. And they’re still unclear who will pay for it all.“It’s unlikely the governor is going to come to the city of Oceanside and say, here’s several million dollars to go build a new sobering center, or a new shelter. Just because the governor orders something doesn’t mean anything’s going to happen,” said Peter Weiss, mayor of Oceanside, in northern San Diego County.

The governor’s goals may run into the same not-in-my-backyard resistance that faces nearly every local plan for homeless shelters. Caltrans identified a small piece of excess land in the Bay Area city of Richmond, next to Interstate 80, that could be an emergency shelter. But Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said he’s “not optimistic.”

“The governor’s task force on homelessness decided that cities and counties should be responsible for this,” Butt said. “I think that’s just wrong.”The state expects to make 100 parcels available this year to governments that apply to use the sites.

State land, local burden: Each shelter costs millions nothing can compel a city or county to use the state land as a shelter; they would have to apply for permission to use the land. But if they do, the burden of operating it falls on their own shoulders. That includes food, bedding and transportation, liability arising from fire or violence and the cost of administrators and security.

The Newsom administration says the excess land plan will help offset shelter costs for cities and counties —at least, those willing to seek help.“Local government has a responsibility to put their hands up and be part of the solution,” said Jason Elliott, Newsom’s senior counselor on housing and homelessness. “A good number at the county and city level are answering the call by leaning forward and embracing solutions.”Some state funding is available to local governments, and more is on the way.

Last year, Newsom pledged $650 million to cities, counties and regional associations called Continuums of Care to fight homelessness. Of that, Newsom has made $500 million available; the other $150 million will be disbursed once the U.S. Housing and Urban Development certifies the 2019 “point in time” count of homeless people. Newsom is asking the legislature for another $750 million in this year’s budget, some of which would go to shelters.“The governor has made available a historic amount of resources, in addition to the money that naturally goes to cities and counties for homelessness and mental health resources,” Elliott said.

But opening and running a homeless shelter for even just a short time can cost millions. A tent shelter underneath a bridge for 420 people cost Modesto $1.6 million during the 10 months it was open. A shelter in Sacramento with services focused on finding temporary or permanent housing cost the city $5 million in public and private money over 17 months, raising hackles on the city council.

Homeless advocates say that the shelters will reduce the cost of jails, emergency room visits and other services that would result from people living outdoors.

A Richmond and Contra Costa County homeless coalition will be allocated one-time funding of up to $2.7 million in emergency homeless aid from the state, along with another $2.5 million that’s available directly to the county as part of the state’s $650 million going directly to cities, counties and regional care associations.

However, Richmond’s mayor says that’s not nearly enough when counts show his city alone hasat least 400 unsheltered people at any point.“We’re either gonna continue to put Band-Aids on it and push these people into shelters and Tuff Sheds and that, or the state is going to pay up. California’s rich enough to afford it, the United States is rich enough to afford it,” Butt said.“When I read this thing that the problem’s gonna get pushed down to cities and counties, that’s just crazy and it makes no sense. We’re either gonna solve it or we’re gonna keep pushing it down.” Whatever-it-takes modeSteinberg, Sacramento’s mayor said the counties and regions could work together to solve the homeless crisis, but they haven’t.

Nothing yet compels cities and counties to work together to resolve their homelessness crises, but the Steinberg-led governor’s coalition wants to change that. Under a coalition proposal, the state could sue cities and counties that fail to house the majority of their homeless population. The Legislature would have to design the plan, and it would have to go before voters.