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In defense of Orange County's 'NIMBY' stance on homelessness

In defense of Orange County's 'NIMBY' stance on homelessness
Homelessness in Santa Ana, California in Orange County (Eugene Garcia/EPA-EFE/REX)

Orange County isn’t an exclusive club where only the wealthy can live. We’re 3 million people who have problems just like everyone else in California: We work hard to pay for housing, we’re overtaxed and we’re trying to eke out a safe existence in a county where many cities are facing an increase in property crime.

We put a premium on our quality of life. Law and order are our priorities. We are not complacent about our problems. Maybe that’s why people want to live here, including a large homeless population.

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As a supervisor for the county’s 3rd District, I see Orange County’s struggles and its achievements clearly, so I was particularly offended when Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti weighed in on our homeless relocation efforts. “I think that Orange County is a few years behind what we’ve gone through [in L.A.],” he said. “It’s not that we don’t have any NIMBYism, but we have much less.” He also said that Orange County cities would eventually “realize” that they have a homeless problem.

Orange County is neither heartless nor unaware of its homelessness problem. Over the last six months, we cleared the encampments along the Santa Ana River of nearly 700 homeless people, helping them into temporary housing, getting them mental health support and job training.

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We have set aside $55 million for homeless services in the current county budget, plus $1.6 million for those with extreme mental health problems and an additional $90.5 million for housing.

The county operates two fall/winter shelters and two year-round facilities, including the well-planned transitional housing at the Bridges at Kraemer Place. The latter opened a year ago in my district and has operated successfully without incident despite initial community concerns.

We don’t accept homelessness as a way of life, and we don’t enable the homeless population.


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Los Angeles County’s homeless population numbers well over 50,000; Orange County has about 5,000 homeless people. Los Angeles’ total population is three times larger than Orange County’s. If our rate of homelessness matched L.A.’s, we would have about 15,000 people on the streets. Perhaps Mayor Garcetti should be looking to us for solutions for his homeless problem, instead of taking potshots.

We don’t accept homelessness as a way of life, and we don’t enable the homeless population. We are dedicated to pulling the homeless out of that existence. A lawsuit on behalf of homeless people who wanted to continue living along the river has resulted in monitoring by a federal judge, who is requiring additional shelters throughout the county. Still, we have an anti-overnight camping ordinance, and we can use it to arrest lawbreakers.

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In contrast, Los Angeles does not have an anti-camping ordinance, and it has decriminalized sleeping on the streets. The city’s essentially hands-off police presence beckons homeless people from across the nation like a neon sign. L.A.’s skid row encompasses 50 blocks, and it’s spreading.

One of Mayor Garcetti’s solutions is a pilot program to place homeless individuals in the backyards of homeowners (a huge liability lawsuit waiting to happen). The city and county are trying to build thousands of private-public housing units with no guarantee that the homeless will undergo mental health or job training to make them productive members of society.

In the meantime, the mayor wants to erect a large tented temporary shelter in Koreatown (and in every city council district). Koreatown has reacted with multiple protests and a petition against the shelter with more than 9,000 signatures on it to date. Orange County residents don’t accept housing alternatives that aren’t carefully thought out in order to minimize the impact on residential areas.

Between general funds, donated land and bond money, the city of Los Angeles alone is budgeting $430 million for homelessness in 2018-19, more than double the 2017-18 figure for a problem that keeps getting worse.

San Francisco is in similar straits. The edges of its freeways and open spaces are tent cities for an intractable population of homeless people. Open drug use on city streets among homeless individuals is common. When the city tried to clean itself up before the Super Bowl in 2016, do-gooders handed out tents instead. These cities and their residents aren’t solving their problem, they are fueling the cycle of homelessness.

When Orange County cleared the Santa Ana River encampments, workers found 315 tons of trash, 2.5 tons of hazardous waste and 13,950 hypodermic needles. I was there during the cleanup. I talked to numerous homeless individuals, urging them to use the county’s services. Many people told me they didn’t want the help; they liked living at the riverbed. Our social workers have identified them and keep going back to ask, hoping that one day they will say “yes” to what we offer.

But renters and homeowners in Orange County have rights too — such as the right to a peaceful, safe existence. When they object to another shelter nearby, they should be heard. They don’t deserve to be punished with increased crime and depreciating property values.

Mayor Garcetti may look upon Orange County with disdain for our “NIMBY” stance, but there is a reason people want to live here. We will fight to prevent Orange County from becoming a replica of Los Angeles. We will not accept a permanent skid row.

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Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer’s district includes parts of Santa Ana, Anaheim, Irvine, Tustin, Orange and Yorba Linda.

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