The federal judge who has been overseeing litigation about resources and services for Orange County’s homeless population commended Costa Mesa leaders Friday for taking the “courageous step” of opening a new local shelter.
“These are hard issues, but once you do this I think you’re going to see an input back from your community with the retail sections coming back, the downtown coming back, people just using your parks again and feeling safe, quite frankly,” U.S. District Judge David Carter told about 60 dignitaries, city staff members, public safety personnel and residents outside Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene, where the shelter is located. “So if we can accomplish all that humanely for the public and for the homeless, I think you’ve hit a home run.”
Friday’s ceremony marked the official opening of the city’s 50-bed “bridge shelter” on the church property at 1885 Anaheim Ave.
The facility began service Wednesday and had about 20 people there as of Friday morning, according to the city.
“What a morning, huh?” Lighthouse pastor Phil Eyskens said as he scanned the crowd before the proceedings. “Praise God, what a day.”
Opening the facility also clears the way for Costa Mesa to resume enforcing local anti-camping laws, which have been tied up for roughly a year, partly because of a federal lawsuit filed in January 2018 against Orange County and the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Orange on behalf of homeless people cleared from a former encampment along the Santa Ana River.
“When you take the step of building the shelter and complying [with] the law, then you’ve got the full support of the court — it’s just as simple as that,” said Carter, who presided over that case, which Costa Mesa settled last month. “Now that you’ve taken that step, these ordinances will be enforced. They’re being done humanely.”
Costa Mesa is far from the only Orange County city to have landed in Carter’s courtroom regarding homelessness issues. A settlement was signed by Anaheim, Orange and Tustin in November in response to the riverbed lawsuit, and in February, advocates for the homeless filed suit against Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Irvine, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano for what they called failure to provide more housing for those living on the streets.
During court hearings, Carter has repeatedly urged county and city officials to develop plans for expanding the number of emergency shelters. In a Feb. 19 court filing, he described the number of homeless deaths in Orange County — more than 250 in 2018 alone — as a “crisis.”
“He’s taken on this unique role as a judge who is leading in terms of making the communities address a crisis … that we’ve let linger for a long time,” Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley said Friday.
The city, she said, is “embarking on what has been long overdue in our community to restore the safety and the quality of our neighborhoods and to protect and secure people who need shelter.”
But, she emphasized, the shelter is just one piece of the puzzle.
“Despite how nice this new facility is here, it is not a place for people to live forever,” she said. “We need to take the next step and put them into permanent housing, reassign them to recuperative care … make sure that they reconnect with their family members.”
The shelter at Lighthouse is expected to operate for about a year before moving to a longer-term location in the city.
State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) said the new shelter is a testament to Costa Mesa’s leaders and residents.
“You have shown us what is possible with decisive leadership, with creative problem-solving and with the commitment of a caring and compassionate community,” she said.