Op-Ed

The upside of visible homelessness in Orange County: We can't pretend we're better than everyone

Whenever I see homeless people somewhere in Orange County where I’ve never noticed them before — say, inside a tent at the Tustin Civic Center, begging for money off the 5 Freeway in Mission Viejo or washing themselves in a bathroom sink at the Westminster Mall — I applaud.

Don’t get me wrong: Their plight is a tragedy. Southern California’s housing shortage, the ravages of the opioid epidemic and personal demons have left too many people battered, beat, reviled and without a permanent, safe place to stay the night.

In truth, Orange County’s homeless population is relatively modest: 4,792, per this year’s census by Point-in-Time, an organization that conducts such surveys biannually. (Los Angeles County’s number, by comparison, is 57,794, per the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.) Yet you’d think by reading comments on local Facebook pages or local newspapers that an army of bums has descended upon Orange County to intentionally sully our fair land. OCers complain about declining property values, whine that nonprofits that feed and bathe homeless people just enable them, rant that politicians and police should forcefully drive them away from us.

To that angst, I say: good. We deserve to be bothered. (Hence my applause.)

Orange County has long needed a reckoning with the real world, and this issue is making it happen. Every homeless person who inconveniences a real housewife or NIMBYer is a living, breathing reminder that our superiority complex has nowhere to pitch its tent anymore. For far too long, we’ve self-mythologized ourselves as a place where good people could live out their three-bedroom, two-bath, swimming-pool suburban American Dream if only they tried hard enough, while “bad” people and their problems went to Los Angeles or the Inland Empire.

That juvenile narrative created a bubble in which we felt urban blight would never afflict us — because we’re Orange County, damn it! Elected officials resisted affordable and high-density housing for decades (and still do), while actively ignoring activists who, Cassandra-like, warned that homelessness was not only not going away, it was getting worse.

Fact is, it’s part of Orange County’s DNA. It’s one of our original sins: In 1906, when Santa Ana officials ordered the city’s Chinatown burned to the ground after rumors of leprosy, the enclave’s immigrant residents were pushed to the Santa Ana River, where they had no choice but to set up makeshift camps. (In a twist of cosmic justice, police agencies across the county frequently pick up homeless people in their jurisdictions and dump them within the Santa Ana city limits.)

But because the homeless aren’t a convenient part of the Orange County narrative, they were ignored and dismissed as a non-issue. Perceptions only started to change after two major incidents that drew nationwide attention to our homeless community: The 2011 beating death of Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police, and the 2012 slayings of four homeless men by a serial killer around tony Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills.

Still, any plans to address the growing population were vigorously opposed. Angry residents shooed proposed homeless shelters out of their town. In 2013, the Orange County Board of Supervisors offered Santa Ana $4 million for a former bus depot near the Santa Ana Civic Center — long the epicenter of OC’s homeless population — so they could turn it into shelter. Council members refused because it didn’t fit with their plans for a gentrified downtown. Two years later, the city finally sold it for $3.3 million — two years wasted.

And now, a giant homeless encampment has taken over the Plaza of the Flags just outside Santa Ana City Hall. Now, homeless people are a regular presence in once-unimaginable areas: beaches in Dana Point, around San Clemente, even in Irvine. Now, belatedly, Orange County officials are doing something to address the situation. The supervisors have opened a permanent, year-round shelter in Anaheim and are looking to start others.

The board, however, hasn’t even addressed a proposed $55-million plan by the ACLU’s Orange County chapter to permanently eradicate homelessness in OC, because it is still sore that the ACLU sued it earlier this year for driving the homeless away from the Santa Ana River. And Huntington Beach recently asked Beach Cities Interfaith Services — which has helped homeless people in the city for 30 years — to vacate its city-owned premises near Central Park because it was attracting too many clients. It’s the second time in four years that the city has forced out the nonprofit.

Kicking the homeless over to another city or another part of town isn’t going to work anymore. Nor is plugging our ears and nose and covering our eyes. Orange County needs to accept that we’re part of Southern California and not a paradise inoculated against reality. We need to realize that our unsustainable, single-family home lifestyle exacerbates homelessness, and work to rectify this.

Until then, I welcome the homeless to set up in places where they’ve never been before — at the gates of Coto de Caza, next to the faux Roman arches of Newport Coast, on the trails of our canyons. Make our lives uncomfortable with your mere presence. Force us to grow up. Shame us into action.

Gustavo Arellano is editor of OC Weekly and does the “Orange County Line” commentary on KCRW every Monday evening.

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