Denise Aken once ran a boarding house, caring for tenants in Anaheim. But job loss and illness sent her to the streets around Santa Ana’s Civic Center, where she struggled to find a safe space to spread her belongings and rest her body.
Before, when she needed to go anywhere, “I had to persuade someone to watch my stuff and wonder if it’d be there when I get back,” Aken said.
But since the recent opening of a transitional shelter at an old bus terminal, she said she is less fearful.
“I have a corner of my own,” said Aken, 58. “I have bins for storage. There are bathrooms, and the showers will be installed soon. I’ve waited and waited for the chance to get into government housing, and this is a good spot to be in until then.”
The shelter is a partial response to a swelling homeless problem in the city that houses most of Orange County’s administrative and government offices. The Board of Supervisors also has given the go-ahead to build the county’s first year-round homeless shelter in Anaheim, with construction expected to be completed by late 2017.
In recent weeks, Orange County leaders have faced mounting pressure to tackle the immediate problem of a homeless encampment at the city’s Civic Center that has ballooned to more than 450 people, prompting concern for the security of people and property. Downtown residents and employees report seeing syringes, feces and fights, and some say they have been accosted.
In September, the Santa Ana City Council declared the area “a public health crisis,” calling on police to step up enforcement and pushing county supervisors to devise a cleanup strategy.
The transitional shelter, called the Courtyard and located at 400 Santa Ana Blvd., opened Oct. 5. By the next day, 93 people had signed up to stay the night.
Susan Price, the homeless czar hired by Orange County officials in May to coordinate services, said she expects those numbers to climb quickly — with capacity being reached at 300. The structure is partly open air with portions covered by a roof.
For many who are homeless, the shelter’s opening could not have been more timely.
“Out here, everything gets taken from you. I’ve lost six phones, five bikes, a laptop and my only shoes. People just don’t give each other respect,” said Miguel Hurtado, a former adult school principal in the Coachella Valley who fell on hard times and couldn’t pay his rent.
At 69, he’s trying to provide a haven for his three daughters, ages 17, 19 and 21. “I’m wishing, they’re wishing for somewhere secure.”
The family used to claim a “fairly private space” outside the county public defender’s office until early last week when he said a police officer woke him up in the middle of the night, warning them to move. Hurtado had read about the Courtyard and shepherded his children to the facility.
On Friday, they stood in line to grab turkey sandwiches, Welch’s grape drinks and chips for lunch.
“For many of us, there are finally tables to eat at,” Hurtado said. “You don’t have to be on the ground with your food like animals.”
Officials say they want to operate the shelter with fewer of the rules and restrictions that can prevent or dissuade many homeless people from staying and provide case management and wraparound services.
“Look at the entrance. We’re not searching people,” Price said. “We’re low-barrier so that more folks feel welcomed.”
The county mandated that the shelter open within 30 days after supervisors voted in September to approve the housing plan and awarded a $1.4 million contract to the Midnight Mission, a Los Angeles nonprofit homeless agency, to operate the facility. The board also allocated $150,000 to City Net, a Long Beach nonprofit, to coordinate meal service at the facility and outreach by local homeless assistance groups.
“We’re here to help the chronically homeless,” said Mike Arnold, CEO of Midnight Mission. “This is a population that the longer they don’t have options, the harder and more costly it will be for them to secure stability. We just tell people who come in: No drugs. Don’t be a danger to yourself or others. We’ll try to find out who you are, what you need and connect you to the right services.”
The county originally bought the bus terminal last December for $3.3 million. In a rare move, individuals will be allowed to keep their pets with them, and couples — married or not — can remain together without being segregated into male and female quarters, Arnold said. Cubicles are being installed to provide some privacy.
Close to 75% of homeless resources in Orange County are directed at families and women, Price said, with single men and single women often ignored. “We want to tell people that we don’t turn anyone away. This is a community space,” she said.
Juan Mejia, 72, a former landscaper, said he is grateful to be with his feline companion, Precious Midnight, a tuxedo kitten his friends found at Delhi Park.
“See what Grandpa brought you,” he said, urging her toward her litter box as he returned to finish his hot lunch.
“There are too many dangers on the streets that make us want to seek another choice,” the Santa Ana native said.
Some of his homeless buddies went to City Council meetings in late summer and early fall, hearing about potential housing solutions.
“As long as there’s no fighting,” Mejia said of the shelter, “we want to stay.”