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Backlash kills planned homeless shelter in Huntington Beach — just two days after being proposed

Backlash kills planned homeless shelter in Huntington Beach — just two days after being proposed
A former homeless encampment in Orange County. (Los Angeles Times)

Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel on Wednesday withdrew her support for placing a homeless shelter on the site of an abandoned landfill in Huntington Beach — just two days after voting to direct county staff to develop a plan for emergency shelters on county-owned land there and at two other cities.

The plan prompted significant backlash, with the Huntington Beach City Council authorizing the city attorney during a closed session Monday to take any necessary legal action to stop it.

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The Irvine and Laguna Niguel city councils voted Tuesday to sue the county over the plans for their cities.

The opposition underscores the challenges Orange County faces as it tries to find housing for homeless people who have been evicted from massive camps along the Santa Ana River. A federal judge has said the county needs to find solutions.

The site proposed in Huntington Beach is a former landfill on Gothard Street that city officials say is contaminated with methane. The county operated the 33-acre facility from 1947 to 1982.

"From what we hear of the proposal, it would be inhumane for the county to relocate up to 100 individuals to create a homeless tent city on that parcel in Huntington Beach," City Atty. Michael Gates said Tuesday. "It's right by Central Park. It's right near where kids play sports and, more importantly, that piece of property has been known as a contaminated site."

Steel issued a statement Wednesday saying that the former landfill isn't viable for a shelter and that she has directed county staff "to look for alternative solutions through collaboration with city leaders and local agencies."

"The use of any part of this former landfill as an emergency shelter is completely unacceptable, as the hazardous gas released by the former landfill could pose a real health risk," Steel said.

The statement was a reversal from Steel's position when she signed off on the plan Monday.

Steel's communications director, Michelle Cook, said Wednesday that Steel withdrew her support for the site after she discovered that the county would have to install additional gas monitors there and that special building requirements would have to be put in place. Cook said county staff incorrectly identified the site as a feasible option.

Steel, who represents District 2, which includes Huntington Beach, was quiet during much of Monday's Board of Supervisors meeting when the emergency shelters were discussed.

However, before casting her vote, she told her colleagues that she had spoken with Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey before the meeting to let him know what they were considering.

"It's going to be a temporary site. We don't know how long it's going to take," she said. "We already let them know, so I'm OK with it."

Under the proposal the supervisors passed 4 to 1, homeless people would be sent first to a site in Irvine, which would have a capacity of 200, then to Huntington Beach, which would have a capacity of 100. If more shelter is necessary, they would be taken to property near City Hall in Laguna Niguel, which could serve up to 100 people.

The sites would be used only after current county shelters reach capacity. The housing would be in tent-like structures.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who cast the dissenting vote, said during the meeting that the county shouldn't have to create beds for people who don't want them and that staff can fashion a remedy to the homeless problem with current shelters.

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"I am not going to vote to push this into communities when we have that finite group — about 250 — who have somehow in some way indicated they don't want services," he said.

The action came on the heels of negotiations in an ongoing civil rights lawsuit filed against the county in January by attorney Brooke Weitzman, who represents seven homeless people and their advocates, over the clearing of a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River trail.

The lawsuit also sought to prevent the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Orange from enforcing laws against camping, trespassing and loitering.

As part of the negotiations, the county last month moved more than 700 homeless people from the encampment to various motels in Orange County, including some in Costa Mesa.

Vouchers for the motels expired after 30 days — beginning Friday — prompting advocates and county officials to try to provide longer-term temporary housing.

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