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Orange County homeless relocated to motels are being moved again

Updated Mar. 15 at 8:00 a.m.

Homeless people currently put up in motels after they were cleared from an Orange County encampment began receiving letters Wednesday informing them that their stays were coming to an end and that they were going to be relocated. But details were scant. 

“We have referred you to the following housing/residential program,” the form letter reads, followed by four options: "Mental Health Treatment with Housing,""Substance Use Disorder Residential Treatment," "Recuperative Care (residential program)" and “CityNet with referral to shelter."

Andrea Phipps’s letter refers her to "mental health treatment with housing" and informs her that her Irvine motel stay will end on March 19. It says she should be ready for transport by 9 a.m. on that day. 

No other information is given in the letter, printed on OC Health Care Agency letterhead, about the referred service. 

Phipps, who's four-months pregnant, said she was “very stressed out" after receiving the letter. 

“They’re just saying for me to have my belongings ready by 9 a.m., and they’re going to be here to pick me up and take me somewhere. Where are they taking me?” she asked. 

A letter received by one homeless person living in a motel since being evicted from the Santa Ana River, Mar. 14, 2018.
A letter received by one homeless person living in a motel since being evicted from the Santa Ana River, Mar. 14, 2018.

Phipps said she had been living in a tent along the Santa Ana River for more than a year when the county negotiated a legal settlement in February that moved nearly 700 homeless people from the encampment into motels. 

Since then, she’s been sharing a motel room with her partner, the father of her unborn child, and trying to make arrangements for the rest of her pregnancy. She said the pregnancy had been deemed high risk by her doctor.  

The homeless people and their advocates have become increasingly flustered by the county’s failure to detail a concrete plan for moving people from motels into other temporary or permanent shelter. 

“Despite having a full month to come up with a plan, the county unfortunately really hasn’t come up with any plan,” said Brooke Weitzman, one of the lawyers representing homeless clients.

Under the legal settlement that cleared the riverbed encampment, the county agreed to provide minimum 30-day motel stays for the homeless, followed by “appropriate resources” as deemed necessary by health and housing assessments that county workers have been carrying out in recent weeks.

U.S. District Court Judge David Carter, who is overseeing the settlement, has said on several occasions that he doesn't want to see homeless people end up back on the streets.   

The county Board of Supervisors this week approved the use of up to $2 million to increase the number of beds available in shelters, substance abuse treatment programs, and mental and physical health recovery facilities, if necessary. 

But County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said the funds weren’t needed yet.

“We have a sufficient inventory of beds to handle the demand of those who are presently living in motels,” he said. 

But Weitzman said county officials have failed to provide an inventory of those beds or to detail a plan for moving homeless people from the motels — which are scattered throughout the county — to alternative shelter. Several dozen people could be forced to move by the end of this week as their 30-day motel guarantees end. 

Sheena Innocente, a volunteer social worker who’s been helping the homeless in motels, said the county’s vague communication of its plan for housing Phipps and others could exacerbate their mental health problems. 

“To give people a notice that they’re going to be transferring out of the motels without a specific place that they’re going to be going to will send a lot of people’s anxiety through the roof,” she said. 

Late Wednesday, Judge Carter called for a hearing in the case to be held Saturday.