By Leslie Berkman     4/12/2016

Santa Ana’s homeless population was facing a long, cold and wet El Nino season this year but thanks to Mercy House and the Orange County Board of Supervisors, they have a new option to keep safe and dry through the spring.

The estimated 500 homeless people who live in the Santa Ana Civic Center prepared for darkening skies and rainy forecasts one recent Friday by deploying blue tarps and lining up at an emergency shelter. At 11 a.m., county officials began admitting them into the unused bus terminal across from the Orange County Hall of Administration.

Rows of sleeping pads had been arranged in sections on the terminal’s concrete floor. James Brooks, director of emergency services for Mercy House, said one section was reserved for families and single women, another for single men and a third for couples. There also was an area for tents and pets.

The makeshift shelter was supplied with portable toilets and washbasins. A strong odor emanated from disinfectant used to clean the sleeping mats. Volunteers stood ready to serve snacks and hot coffee. Few people remained inside the shelter while it was still dry outdoors, but that was expected to change momentarily.

Cathie Allman, 56, of Irvine, said it was her second year as a Mercy House volunteer. She enjoys helping the homeless so much that she is joining the paid staff and plans on working toward a master’s degree in social work. “We all need to take care of one another,” she said.

A stolidly built man who calls himself Leroy and prefers not to give his last name was seated nearby. “This is a beautiful thing,” 66-year-old Leroy said of the bus terminal turned shelter. “Before this I would be dodging raindrops.” Leroy said when he used to take cover under a tree or in the library, or use money he raised from recycling cans and bottles to pay for bus rides.

Orange County is in escrow to buy the former bus terminal it leases from the OCTA. The county has arranged for Mercy House Living Centers Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Santa Ana, to operate the facility as a homeless shelter on rainy days. For years Mercy House has operated armories as cold weather homeless shelters under a separate contract.

The men and women camping near the former bus terminal shelter are homeless for reasons that range from mental health disorders and physical disabilities to substance addiction, said Mercy House executive director Larry Haynes. Then there are people who simply have fallen on hard times.

Police and homeless advocates say they believe Orange County’s homeless population has increased in recent years because of Prop. 47, the California voter initiative that reduced some felonies to misdemeanors and fostered the early release of prisoners with few housing alternatives.

Ruben Ibarra, a commander with the Santa Ana Police Department in charge of the Civic Center area, said although Santa Ana’s municipal code prohibits camping or storing belongings on public property, issuing citations won’t solve the problem. “We have to help them,” at least those who will accept assistance, he said.

John Thompson, a 56-year-old Navy veteran, said he once lived in the laundry room of a house that he maintained for its absentee owner. When the homeowner died in 2002, he was forced to leave.

Thompson perched on a blanket beside a grocery cart stuffed with his belongings. He said his biggest incentive for going to the shelter was his dog Doobie, a 13-year-old mutt the size of a toy poodle that jumped up, tail wagging, to greet a visitor. “He eats before I do and he gets in here so he doesn’t get wet,” Thompson said.

In creating the emergency shelter, the Orange County Board of Supervisors responded to pressure from advocates for the homeless and the threat of a harsh El Nino winter, said county spokeswoman Jean Pasco. The county intends to continue making the former bus terminal available during storms until June 30, Pasco said. The county has not as yet decided what to do with the facility after that.

Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, acknowledged that the bus terminal “is not optimal” as a shelter. The terminal is essentially “a covered parking lot” that can get very cold and windy, and under the terms of the county’s lease, meals cannot be cooked and counseling and medical care cannot be provided on the premises.

Dwight Smith, director of the Orange County Catholic Worker Isaiah House, criticized the county’s rain shelter as “a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.” He said the temporary nature of the shelter makes it “a distraction” in the county’s quest to end homelessness by providing permanent affordable housing.

But Scott Larson, executive director of HomeAid Orange County and chairman of the Orange County Commission to End Homelessness, said the shelter addresses an immediate need. Once the county takes ownership of the property, he noted, it could become a center for providing meals, medical help and other services to the homeless living nearby. Portable buildings could be brought in to create adequate emergency housing, he suggested.

Mercy House leaders said they believe that putting people into permanent housing is the most effective strategy for eliminating homelessness. Haynes said Mercy House’s goal is to permanently house 900 homeless people this year by providing rental assistance or working with developers to build affordable rental units.

“But in the meantime, emergency shelters are needed to assist men, women and families living on the streets. This is especially true in the rainy season when access to the bus terminal for some minimal shelter is helpful, if not ideal,” said Father Jerome Karcher, pastor at St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church in Huntington Beach. Fr. Karcher founded Mercy House 26 years ago and serves as its chairman.

“The bottom line of this issue,” Fr. Karcher said, “is to uphold the dignity of each person created in the image and likeness of God and do our best to enhance that dignity with adequate housing options and emergency services.”

Anyone who would like to volunteer at Mercy House please contact the volunteer coordinator, Irene Mendoza, at 714-836-7188 or [email protected].

Editor’s Note: It should be noted that the agreement between the county and Mercy House as referenced in this article is temporary. County spokeswoman Jean Pasco said that the county intends to continue making the former bus terminal available to the homeless during storms until June 30, if necessary. The county has not as yet decided what to do with the facility after that, she said.