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Newsom Offers Vacant Land For Homeless Shelters, But Local Officials Worry: Who Will Pay?

Anne Wernikoff/CALmatters
Will, a homeless man who provided his first name only, sits on a sidewalk in Los Angeles.

It was two hours after dusk in Santa Ana, and the temperature had dropped 10 degrees since sundown. A line of men and women bundled against the chill curled past the National Guard Armory’s entrance, around the side of the building and into the parking lot, about 150 in all.


Inside, the layout looked like something provided to evacuees after a disaster: row after row of black sleeping pads, lined up edge to edge. But for the people staying here, this is not temporary shelter: Each year for the last decade, from mid-December until the funding runs out in April or May, the same group calls the concrete floor and five bathrooms home. 

This is Orange County’s answer to its growing, highly concentrated homeless population. On this day in January, the elderly, people with disabilities and a family were let in early and picked out their sleeping mats first. A trio of men, lined up at least an hour before the shelter doors opened, trickled in with camping gear. 

Every December, when the shelter opens, “I’m always amazed. It’s like the first day of school,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, the nonprofit that operates the 10,000-square foot armory shelter. “Everyone says hello like they’re old friends.” 

This shelter — on state land, run by a nonprofit agency — should serve as the basic model of what Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for across the state.

On Jan. 8, Newsom issued an executive order that tasked state agencies with evaluating excess land for use as possible emergency homeless shelters. A state mapcreated last year shows more than 1,000 parcels, ranging from a quarter-acre near a San Diego freeway to 70 acres next to a minimum-security prison in Chino.

But the Santa Ana armory has become a harbinger of the problems that mayors and county executives foresee with new emergency shelters in their backyards. 

Pushback from local leaders

Last summer, a federal judge lauded Orange County for a cooperative plan to avoid arresting homeless people while directing them toward county housing and health services. The judge called the agreement between the county and homeless activists a model for the rest of the state, if not the nation.  

The peace barely lasted into the new year. Santa Ana, the county’s poorest city, filed suit in January, alleging that three other Orange County cities are dropping off their homeless population at the armory in a community that already has a disproportionate amount of shelters. The county has a 400-bed shelter in downtown Santa Ana, with plans to expand it, and the city has a 200-bed shelter. 

“In recent years, the city of Santa Ana has been compelled to spend millions of dollars from its general fund to address health and safety concerns attributable to the homeless population now living here,” the city said in the lawsuit. “That money would otherwise have been spent on providing core services to residents.”  

In several cities and counties contacted by CalMatters, local leaders expressed concern about the governor’s plan to open land for shelters in their jurisdictions. Some see it as ineffective and unfair — offering state land but not paying for the costs associated with a shelter.

The elected leaders say they’ve received little information about how the shelters will operate or who will operate them. They don’t know how people will get to and from the sites. They don’t know how neighbors might react. And they’re still unclear who will pay for it all. 

“It’s unlikely the governor is going to come to the city of Oceanside and say, here’s several million dollars to go build a new sobering center, or a new shelter. Just because the governor orders something doesn’t mean anything’s going to happen,” said Peter Weiss, mayor of Oceanside, in northern San Diego County. 

The governor’s goals may run into the same not-in-my-backyard resistance that faces nearly every local plan for homeless shelters.

Caltrans identified a small piece of excess land in the Bay Area city of Richmond, next to Interstate 80, that could be an emergency shelter. But Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said he’s “not optimistic.” 

“The governor’s task force on homelessness decided that cities and counties should be responsible for this,” Butt said. “I think that’s just wrong.”

The state expects to make 100 parcels available this year to governments that apply to use the sites. 

State land, local burden: Each shelter costs millions

Nothing can compel a city or county to use the state land as a shelter; they would have to apply for permission to use the land. But if they do, the burden of operating it falls on their own shoulders. That includes food, bedding and transportation, liability arising from fire or violence and the cost of administrators and security. 

The Newsom administration says the excess land plan will  help offset shelter costs for cities and counties — at least, those willing to seek the help. 

“Local government has a responsibility to put their hands up and be part of the solution,” said Jason Elliott, Newsom’s senior counselor on housing and homelessness. “A good number at the county and city level are answering the call by leaning forward and embracing solutions.”

Some state funding is available to local governments, and more is on the way.

Last year, Newsom pledged $650 million to cities, counties and regional associations called Continuums of Care to fight homelessness. Of that, Newsom has made $500 million available; the other $150 million will be disbursed once the U.S. Housing and Urban Development certifies the 2019 “point in time” count of homeless people. Newsom is asking the legislature for another $750 million in this year’s budget, some of which would go to shelters. 

“The governor has made available a historic amount of resources, in addition to the money that naturally goes to cities and counties for homelessness and mental health resources,” Elliott said.

But opening and running a homeless shelter for even just a short time can cost millions. Atent shelter underneath a bridge for 420 people cost Modesto $1.6 million during the 10 months it was open. A shelter in Sacramento with services focused on finding temporary or permanent housing cost the city $5 million in public and private money over 17 months, raising hackles on the city council.  

Homeless advocates say that the shelters will reduce the cost of jails, emergency room visits and other services that would result from people living outdoors.

“We’ve got to bring people indoors,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is co-chair of the governor’s council on homelessness. “I view this as all new opportunity. Land is costly, and if the state’s willing to partner with us and provide land, I only have two words: thank you.”

But reducing homelessness and its associated issues, including mental health, are big challenges, said Weiss, mayor of Oceanside. Many residents have negative perceptions of homeless people because of crime, litter and frequent calls for police, so they may oppose a shelter.

Weiss said he would welcome  a new shelter — but not the associated costs. 

Caltrans identified a 17-acre parcel of excess land south of State Route 76 in Oceanside, but Weiss said he doesn’t know how the city or county would pay for a shelter there. 

Richmond and Contra Costa County homeless coalition will be allocated one-time funding of up to $2.7 million in emergency homeless aid from the state, along with another $2.5 million that’s available directly to the county as part of the state’s $650 million going directly to cities, counties and regional care associations.

However, Richmond’s mayor says that’s not nearly enough when counts show his city alone has at least 400 unsheltered people at any point.  

“We’re either gonna continue to put Band-Aids on it and push these people into shelters and Tuff Sheds and that, or the state is going to pay up. California’s rich enough to afford it, the United States is rich enough to afford it,” Butt said. 

“When I read this thing that the problem’s gonna get pushed down to cities and counties, that’s just crazy and it makes no sense. We’re either gonna solve it or we’re gonna keep pushing it down.” 

Whatever-it-takes mode

Steinberg, Sacramento’s mayor said the counties and regions could work together to solve the homeless crisis, but they haven’t. 

“No one would ask the counties or cities to do what they can’t do, but we are in  whatever-it-takes mode,” Steinberg said.

James Gore, a Sonoma County supervisor and first vice president of the California State Assn. of Counties, said there could be electoral consequences for officials that push forward with shelter plans. “Diving into homelessness and affordable housing is a good way for elected officials to get voted out of office in a world run by NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard),” he said. 

Nevertheless, Gore said the governor’s shelter plan is urgently necessary, especially since local efforts haven’t been effective. 

“I would look at my colleagues who are criticizing the governor and say the time for criticism is over. There was local control, and there haven’t been results,” he said. “For cities and counties that think they don’t have enough money, they have a reckoning coming.”

Part of the problem, Steinberg said, is how Californians think about the word “shelter.” 

“Shelter has been and in many ways continues to be a pejorative term,” Steinberg said. “It implies to people who are skeptics that the only kind of shelter is a long-term, dusty, mis-run facility where people are helpless without the ability to get long-term housing.

“That’s a stereotype and it may have been an accurate stereotype at one point. But now, when we say shelter, we’re talking about navigation centers, where the point is to gain stability to get off the streets permanently.”

It’s unclear what kind of shelters would be built on excess state land. The governor’s office has mandated that they all have “service provisions” such as housing assistance and medical care. 

Nothing yet compels cities and counties to work together to resolve their homelessness crises, but the Steinberg-led governor’s coalition wants to change that. Under a coalition proposal, the state could sue cities and counties that fail to house the majority of their homeless population. The Legislature would have to design the plan, and it would have to go before voters. 

In the meantime, Newsom is pushing even further with the idea of turning government land into shelter space. On Jan. 21, the governor askedU.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to “match our commitment by similarly providing surplus federal land to local governments across the state so they can build housing for the homeless.” 

Shelter 1.0: A roof and a bathroom

Haynes, who runs the National Guard Armory shelter in Santa Ana, describes it as a “shelter 1.0,” which are deliberately temporary. “Here’s a roof, here’s a door, here’s a bathroom, do the best you can,” he said. 

Since the armories are used by the Guard during the day, everything has to be picked up — and cleaned to military standards — by 8 a.m. daily. That means a predawn wake-up call for the people laid out elbow-to-elbow on the floor of the building. 

“Is it difficult to get them up? It’s awful,” Haynes said. “But that’s not our call. It’s got to be mopped, broomed, like no one was ever here. 

“I think it’s time for this model [of shelter] to sunset. There are a lot of options out there. I think there’s a growing frustration with the lack of space, the lack of privacy, and as someone who operates this shelter, I can say, I get it.”

Shelters of more recent vintage, or in more permanent locations, afford better privileges. Some have bunk beds instead of mats. People have a designated spot so they don’t have to line up before the shelter opens. Some have housing assistance programs and a medical clinic. 

Haynes gazed around at the 150 people inside the armory, shuffling from dinner — that day it was chicken noodle soup, bread and a salad — to the tightly-packed mats on the concrete floor. 

“At the end of the day, whether there’s going to be legal persuasion or not, at some point in time a policymaker — whether it’s a councilmember, a board of [supervisors] member, a governor, whatever — is going to have to take the heat for making the decision to have a shelter sited.” 

Nigel Duara is a reporter at CalMatters. This article is part ofThe California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.