Bridges at Kraemer Place, Orange County's first-ever year-round homeless shelter, has only about half of its 100 beds taken since opening on May 5. The converted warehouse by the 91 freeway in Anaheim is being constructed in two phases, with another 100 beds coming next year. Mercy House, which runs the facility, accepted around 35 people into its quarters after the first weekend in operation. But how do homeless folks gain access to the precious bed space left until then?
"The Kraemer Shelter is open to anyone who's interested in bridging to permanent housing," says county spokeswoman Carrie Braun. "That's what makes the shelter so different from other emergency, low-barrier shelters like the Courtyard in Santa Ana."
Bridges is focused on transitioning homeless into housing, allowing for up to 180-day stays if necessary. Most of the early clients came to the Kraemer shelter by way of the Fullerton Armory, a seasonal emergency shelter that closed a few weeks ago. Four people seeking shelter already got help finding permanent housing during the intake process.
Total occupancy is expected to grow in the coming weeks. But unlike the Armory, the homeless can't just walk up to Bridges and seek shelter—they do that, they'll get turned away. They'll need a referral from one of the 25 groups in North OC Mercy House works with, like City Net, St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton, Brea PD's Homeless Liaison Officer Program, and Placentia Presbyterian Church. Homeless people have to be at least 18, not be a registered sex offender or have active felony warrants. Families with children under 18 aren't allowed, nor are pets (with the exception of officially registered service and companion dogs.)
After gaining a referral and being screened, the eligible then get taken to Bridges by shuttle. "We worked with the cities in North OC to identify pick up locations that would be appropriate to utilize," says Patti Long, Operations Director at Mercy House. The undisclosed spots, like no walk-ups, are part of Bridges' "Good Neighbor" policy. "We didn't want those spots to become a place where people congregate," Long adds.
In the years leading up to Bridges' opening, the shelter faced fierce opposition from NIMBY property owners, businesses and local residents in the surrounding area. Disgraced blogger Matt Cunningham led the online charge with "BetterSolutions4Anaheim," a now-defunct website that no doubt ended when Matty's bosses stopped paying him to run it (and only further proves that the man who once outed sex-abuse victims doesn't care about anything unless he can get a paycheck out of it). Mercy House reports having no issues with its strict no-walk-up policy since opening. Morning and evening shuttle pick-ups are running smoothly. The shelter's bed space is being assigned at a measured pace.
Unsurprisingly, homeless advocates aren't thrilled with Bridges' bureaucratic approach.
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"The intake policy leaves much to be desired, as it creates significant barriers to care," says Eve Garrow, Homeless Policy Analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), of Bridges. "By prohibiting walk-ups, failing to provide information on shuttle pick up locations and designing complex referral policies, the program makes it more difficult for people to access the care they need. Homeless service organizations should make it easier, not more difficult, for people experiencing homelessness to access services."
And then there's the encampment behind Angel Stadium along the Santa Ana Riverbed. The county's Health Care Agency outreach and engagement teams give homeless people by the banks a ride to the Courtyard in Santa Ana, but the same can't be said for Bridges. "We would anticipate that someone who was encamped along the flood control channel would accept the resources that are offered to connect to a partner agency, and from there they could be referred to Bridges," says Braun.
Along with 100 more beds coming next year, the shelter will offer a health clinic, a full warming kitchen, and interior restrooms and showers as part of the earmarked $10 million in county funds for its creation. In the meantime, new figures on the number of OC homeless are expected later this month. Old stats that found roughly 4,500 homeless OC residents in 2015 and 797 last year in Anaheim alone, paint a picture of an issue too big for Bridges and its restrictive intake policy alone.
"We never expected that Bridges at Kraemer Place was going to solve the homelessness problem, but we do believe that it's going to help," Braun says. "Getting it opened earlier and providing these 100 beds is going to help more people."