Supervisors’ Sneaky Special Session on the Riverbed Homeless




I’m still feeling a little baffled in the aftermath of the special session of the Orange County Board of Supervisors held on Thursday at the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.

I really enjoy looking over the video replays of the city councils and BOS meetings. There is so much information to pull from these videos. I would like to share some of my insights regarding this particular special meeting with you and I will post a video clip for your personal consideration and let you be the judge.

There have been some really strange behaviors on the part of elected officials and department heads at County this past week.

This began when a massive task force, an amalgamation of several County agencies actually, descended on the Santa Ana River homeless encampment located at Chapman Ave and the 57 freeway. By the time I arrived there on Wednesday morning the operation was in full swing with approximately 30 County employees observing about 10 volunteers from the CCC load tents, blankets, clothing and other homeless personal property into a waiting truck to be hauled off to an undisclosed location for storage, but in this case perhaps for disposal.

Once again, our taxpayers lose. Imagine the payroll for the 40 or so county employees whom I observed doing nothing at all. There were, additionally, nearly 30 sheriff’s deputies that swooped in on the encampments like a strike team of commandos would on a terrorist sleeper cell. Some of these law enforcement personnel can earn nearly $220K a year with overtime and all.

The worst part is, that on the previous Friday, February 3, 2017, I had conversations with a supervisor from County Public Works, Joe Villa, Shannen Widor of the County Public Information Office and Susan Price the Director of Care Coordinator for OC. Price (right) is also known as the County’s “homeless czar.”

I made the calls in response to reports from the riverbed that once again notices had been posted there informing homeless people that they were to vacate or be removed as trespassers.

This was the reason for my calls to Villa, Widor and Price as I wanted to make sure that what happened on Wednesday at the riverbed would not happen at all. I also offered help from a number of advocates from the riverbed that collaborative look out for the welfare of homeless people living in encampments there.

I was assured that nothing of the sort would take place. I was given thanks for volunteering to help the county facilitate the current public works project there. I was also assured that the county would keep me informed regarding their work schedule so that myself and other volunteers could be on standby to assist homeless being displaced to another location.

I also confirmed with the trio of impudent county bureaucrats (Villa, Widor, Price) that we would have to discuss further in the coming week just where these soon to be displaced homeless people were to go for the remainder of the project, so as to be moved only one time.

I was reminded of the liability issues facing the county for actually providing such safe ground, so I asked that perhaps we could discuss arrangements off the record given that these people had nowhere else to go.

After the raid took place on Wednesday I placed a call to homeless czar Susan Price, who was not available for that entire week. I can’t convey my eagerness to speak with Ms. Price on Monday morning enough. It will be interesting to discover what her role, if any, plays into the overall plans for the raid.

Did the raids take place because shewas out of town?  Or did she leave town with knowledge that the raids would take place? Either way, the trust between the county and the homeless and those advocating for them is severely damaged. It may be that the county can not be trusted by anyone regarding homeless policies, including taxpayers.

Let’s fast forward to the day after the riverbed raids on Wednesday morning. That morning I was at my desk working when I began hearing chatter on Facebook involving some less than reliable sources mentioning a special meeting of County Supervisors. The meeting was apparently scheduled for 2 pm that day giving me less than three hours to determine if the information was accurate and travel to Santa Ana for the meeting.

I never received a message by email from the county as I do on other occasions. I checked my news sources, nothing there. So, I began calling around trying to find any trusted source for any information regarding the meeting. None were to be found.

One of my fellow advocates reacted to calls that I had been making to others and within a short time we both were on our way to the meeting, still not convinced that a meeting were to actually take place.

When my associate and myself arrived at the Hall of Administration, it was still difficult to discern the actuality of the meeting until we approached the metal detectors at the county chambers entrance.

Within a few minutes the meeting was called to order by Chair Michelle Steele and in no time at all the public comments section of the agenda was called and the ten or so homeless advocates began giving our comments to the Board.

So, I downloaded the video which was not made available publicly until Saturday morning and made an edit covering the meeting beginning at the end of public comments right up until the meeting was adjourned. You can see the replay of the entire meeting at the county website. I will provide you a link to my edit which covers Supervisor Shawn Nelson giving the most lame excuses for the behavior on the part of the county on the previous day at the riverbed.

I have never seen a meeting that had so few in attendance. By the end of the meeting only about fifteen total speakers actually gave comment; otherwise there were no other people in attendance.

The video picks up during this sequence of the meeting and continues until the meeting is adjourned.

After public comments were closed, the clerk read Item 1 on the agenda which was the only item for that session. The item read by the clerk as follows:

“Item 1 Sheriff/Coroners to adopt a resolution ratifying the proclamation of a local emergency by the Vice Chair of the Board (Andrew Do) related to 2017 winter storm events; and set review to determine need for continuing local emergency for 2/28/17, 9:30 am and every 30 days thereafter.”

After Item 1 was introduced on the floor, a motion in favor was made by Andrew Do and seconded by Todd Spitzer. It would be the only word spoken by Spitzer over the course of the meeting. Can anyone remember a time when Todd did not have something to say at a BOS meeting?

Chairperson Steele called for a count and all four supervisors in attendance (Lisa Bartlett absent) voted in favor and Item 1 was determined to be passed by the Chair.

Please note that there is not one word mentioned about the homeless, public works or any project taking place at the riverbed nor any acknowledgment of the riverbed raids one day prior, leaving myself and others still unsure about the purpose of the meeting in the first place.

Normally, when the Board calls a special meeting, the supervisor that agendized the item provides an explanation. After all, everyone was called at very short notice and there was only one item on the agenda. In this case Andrew Do could have explained that a special emergency session was called with concerns to the homeless living at the riverbed in the face of extreme winter storms like the several that have already come and gone this year. But this did not happen and the meeting which began as a mystery in purpose, started to look more dubious in nature, and perhaps even more suspicious in character.

I first questioned the lack of any reference to homeless issues in the language of the resolution that was Item 1 on the agenda and why the sudden urgency on the part of the supervisors to take action in defense of a subset of the county population who were nameless.

I did not see the urgency over the past two years when myself and others stood before these same individuals asking them to declare an emergency for homeless people in the face of inclement weather conditions. Where I did not perceive urgency in the past, now I was seeing special short-notice secret session urgency and it was very obvious that much more was taking place behind the scenes, that was for sure.

Next, Chair Steele circled the room asking each superintendent to comment on the ratification of Item 1, each declining until winding up with Shawn Nelson who suddenly looked like the guy that drew the short straw at the closed session held earlier that day.

What Nelson contributed in comment might possibly be the most lame excuse I have ever heard – blaming the state for shortfalls in funding that would otherwise provide more opportunities for affordable housing. He went on to tell the same story I heard him use regarding the county’s inability to provide greater solutions to ending the homeless problem.

As the story goes, the state pays Orange County only 6 cents for every dollar of property tax revenues that it collects while every other county in the state receives 17 cents for the same. I know this to be true because I investigated his claims three years ago and found that to be absolutely true. Nelson added that the difference means that OC receives a total of over $650M yearly, some of which could be used towards homelessness.

Nelson took a swipe at advocates for the homeless noting that one of the speakers at the meeting compared the current homeless crisis to genocide. This is why I so fervently advise advocates to choose their words carefully when speaking publicly. We have volumes of information that we can compare with what is happening here and now, there is no need to magnify the significance of treatment to homeless people in OC by comparing it with treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany during WWII.

Nelson saw the opportunity to take a jab when he was obviously on the ropes, so all homeless advocates took one to the chin as a result. Please use your words and refrain from this kind of rhetoric in the future. Seriously.

Supervisor Nelson also cited the failed attempt to facilitate a 200 bed emergency shelter in Santa Ana in 2014, blaming the City of Santa Ana. There was a unique set of events that took place prior to the county’s decision to squash that deal.

What happened in Santa Ana

There was some opposition to the shelter from nearby residents of the proposed Normandy Place site including residents of Ward 2 bordering just blocks away from the location and represented by Santa Ana council member Michele Martinez. Martinez was openly opposed to any shelter in the city at the time.

Nimby’s from neighborhoods near the proposed site were showing up in large numbers at both the city council meetings and BOS complaining that they had not been properly informed regarding the the proposed shelter and the location and that not enough public engagement was allowed to take place prior to any final decision.

Santa Ana had previously approved 995 acres of city zoning in compliance with SB2 state regulations regarding places within the city could be considered for operating a shelter. The next step would have been for the county to approve the purchase of the property.

A general election was slated in less than two weeks time on Nov. 4, 2014 and their were seats up for grabs on city council. Fearing retribution at the polls, Vince Sarmiento introduced an item for the Oct. 21, 2014 agenda that would consider options for addressing the proposed project.

After much discussion the city decided to impose a 45 day moratorium within the city to move forward with the shelter. The measure was only symbolic. The county already had what they needed to press further on with the shelter.

The idea of the moratorium worked because it satisfied the demands of the residents of Santa Ana, but it also sent a message to the BOS that Santa Ana did not want a shelter within its city. The county would have to go the distance without support from elected officials in Santa Ana and the political futures of the Board members may have been at stake as well.

On Nov. 18, 2014 the BOS convened at a regular session and the items to purchase the property and the supervisors discussed the matter in a closed session prior to rejecting the proposal on the floor killing the opportunity of a year-round homeless shelter being built in the county for the first time.

In his comments, Nelson, who was chairman at the time, mentioned that if it were up to him he would move forward with the shelter, but did not want to do so by exercising domain over the city of Santa Ana.  Nelson didn’t want to step on the toes of the political hacks in Santa Ana and that’s fine, but Mr. Nelson, where does any sense of urgency exist among elected officials in Orange County?


It has been nearly two and a half years since a Santa Ana shelter was derailed. Using the statistics available, I can determine that nearly five hundred homeless lives have been lost in Orange County during that time. One can only wonder how many might have been saved if the county could do the responsible thing and get these shelters open?

And Supervisor Nelson, you speak so much about political will. Is it the will of the county that homeless people be criminalized and stripped of every bit of dignity?

If you and other members of our BOS can’t get in front of this current homeless crisis without treating the homeless like animals and begin providing them with the same expectations of safety and security as would be done for other citizens of our county, then we must find a way to rid you and others like you from the ranks of county politics.

About Tim Houchen