Faced with an ambitious plan to end homelessness countywide that has yet to gain much momentum, Orange County supervisors Tuesday moved forward with a plan to buy a furniture store in Fullerton that would serve as the county’s first year-round emergency shelter.
Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker asked for a delay in approving the purchase so the city would have more time to review it. But supervisors voted unanimously to buy a 29,000-square-foot building for $3.15 million, slightly more than the $2.9-million assessed market value of the property.
Escrow is expected to take 150 days, and a zoning change by Fullerton city leaders is expected to facilitate the building’s use as a homeless shelter.
Tuesday’s action was met with praise from homeless peope's advocates and with opposition from some residents.
“What I see is a fabulous opportunity to help people,” said Ron Thomas, whose son Kelly was beaten to death by Fullerton police officers in July 2011. The case, which garnered national attention, triggered a recall of City Council members, and the district attorney filed criminal charges against three officers.
“This new facility will help everybody, no matter what their situation is, and get them in the right direction,” Thomas said.
Local residents expressed concern over crime, property damage and the safety of children if the shelter is established. Several homes are across the street from the proposed site on South State College Boulevard.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, whose district includes the proposed site, said he has repeatedly asked opponents to suggest a better location but to no avail. Nelson and shelter directors also challenged the notion that the facilities for homeless people cause crime in surrounding areas.
Nelson described Tuesday's approval as a "real estate play,” adding that “without a site, there was nothing to talk about."
Nelson's appointee to the county Planning Commission, Cameron Irons, heads the company handling the real estate deal, Vanguard Commercial Real Estate.
While Nelson acknowledged potential resident concerns, he warned they would not stop him from finding a permanent solution for a shelter in the area.
“For anyone who would like to say 'not here,' if you’re going to start with that, then finish with 'here is a better place,' ” Nelson said. “This was not something that was easy to find.”
Homelessness has been a difficult issue for Orange County politicians, a point emphasized by Jim Palmer of the Orange County Rescue Mission in a Voice of OC article Tuesday.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer agreed with Palmer’s assessment, acknowledging from the dais that “the solution to this problem is not without political risk.”
“Sometimes we make decisions that people celebrate, and often times we make decisions that divide communities,” he continued. “But we’re elected to make those decisions and to step up.”
Spitzer also praised the daily work that community groups do to care for the county’s homeless, calling them “the true humanitarians of our community.”
Additionally, a suggestion that each of the five supervisors' districts should have a year-round homeless shelter was well received by some board members, with Supervisor John Moorlach saying that’s one of his goals.
Supervisor Janet Nguyen chimed in as well, saying she was already conidering a potential shelter site in Santa Ana.
“The effort has to come from the county. It’s a regional problem,” said Nguyen, adding that “it has to be in collaboration with the cities.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker protested the county's purchase of the site for a future homeless shelter. We regret the error.