A sad truth about our relationship with homeless people is the direct correlation between our compassion for them and our distance from them.
When they live far away from us, we cry for the homeless as the ultimate victims of a cruel, winner-take-all society. When they live next door to us, they are a security threat.
It is this reality that so often makes national and regional commissions aimed at combating homelessness — like the Orange County Commission to End Homelessness — unable to achieve their lofty goals.
While the commissions speak of comprehensive solutions and shared responsibility, individual cities are passing laws and taking actions that, in the name of protecting their citizenry, amount to the "criminalization of homelessness," advocates say.
"Of the 250 largest cities in the country, over half of them have laws on the books that prevent [homeless people] from conducting activities of daily living," said Neil Donovan, the director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "It started out with one or two communities, then four or five. In the last few years that number has grown exponentially."
And, Donovan said, "it's not just Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio in Arizona. It's San Francisco, it's Berkeley. … This is just a cranky, cranky old world we are living in right now."
In Orange County, the hostility that Donovan describes — and its consequences — have at times been on display in dramatic fashion.
Last October, Costa Mesa Mayor Eric Bever proposed closing down the city's soup kitchen because he saw it as an "attractive nuisance" that drew homeless people from elsewhere. Three months later a homeless man and woman were found dead from exposure on the street in front of Costa Mesa's Triangle Square shopping center.
In Santa Ana last winter, Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach failed to convince city officials that opening a vacant bus terminal to homeless people was better than forcing them to sleep on the sidewalks in front of it.
And then there is Fullerton, where in July 2011 six police officers made international news by beating to death Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man.
On the flip side is the tiny city of Stanton. In the past two years Stanton has made a 180-degree change in its approach to homeless people, and in doing so, advocates said, provided an example for its far larger and wealthier brethren to live up to.
The catalyst of this reversal has been the Stanton Multi Service Center, located across from City Hall and dedicated to serving homeless people.
Developed through a partnership between the city and the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation, the center has helped Stanton reduce its homeless population from more than 600 to less than 400 during the past 18 months, said Mayor David Shawver.
This has happened, Shawver said, because he and other city officials have come to believe that "each city is responsible for the care of its homeless."
As part of this ethic, the city has also entered the realm of transitional housing, a relative rarity in a county that despite a population of more than 3 million still does not have a year-round emergency homeless shelter.
Around the corner from the Multi Service Center is the Oak Street Emergency House, which provides transitional housing for up to five families, and the city donated two eight-bedroom units in its Tina Pacific neighborhood at Magnolia and Pacific avenues.
'I Wanted to Hear Their Stories'
On its face, Stanton is not a place where one would expect to see such a success story.
Sandwiched between Anaheim and Westminster, this city of three square miles and fewer than 40,000 people has experienced more than its share of urban ills in recent decades, including a particularly intractable homeless problem.
Most difficult to deal with for Shawver and other city officials was a group of about 18 hardcore homeless people who congregated around the civic center complex.
Shawver talks of children being afraid to walk home from school because they had to pass through this group on the street. A few would even walk into stores and brazenly steal food, and also panhandle in turn lanes.
"It was a really bad situation," Shawver said. "When you think about it, it is not what you'd want for them or for the city."
Stanton's response to the situation was, in some respects, right out of the playbook that so many other cities have used: pass laws that increase the restrictions on homeless people.
"We updated sections relating to food handling in public, updated our camping ordinance, made drinking in parks illegal," said City Manager Jim Box. "We have cracked down very hard."
But officials also did something else. They talked to homeless people. "I wanted to hear their stories," Shawver said. "I found that they are real people with real lives. … A lot of people don't look at it that way."
In the midst of all this, Box met Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon, who in 2007 had cofounded the nonprofit dedicated to reducing the barriers faced by Orange County's homeless population.
Leon was looking for a city as partner for a one-stop center for homeless people, a place where they could find transitional housing, receive behavioral health therapy and even look for jobs. He admited that Stanton was not his first choice.
"When we tried to talk to other cities — Costa Mesa, Anaheim — they weren't interested," Leon said. "They didn't even listen to us."
The Road to Accountability
Stanton officials, on the other hand, were not only willing to listen to Leon but in August 2011 invited representatives of the foundation to a City Council meeting. "Their attitude was we don't care if we are known as the homeless capital of Orange County if it solves the problem," Leon said.
That's not to say, however, that there wasn't resistance to the idea. "We were heavily criticized by residents," Shawver said. "They had visions of soup kitchens and being overrun with long lines of homeless people."
But despite the initial resistance, the Illumination Foundation Multi Service Center opened its doors on Katella Avenue in June 2012.
The center is not much to look at. It has a plain facade, and inside the first floor is a TV area, a few computer stations and a cluster of desks. The staff has visions of refurbishing the second floor and turning it into a loft, but right now it’s a storage area.
Yet it has been a godsend for Rebecca Talbutt, who was using the center's computers on a recent weekday morning. It wasn't long ago that Rebecca and her husband were like so many other couples with young children living paycheck to paycheck.
Talbutt's husband was working as a cook at Buffalo Wild Wings, and she was enrolled in an online program to become a medical assistant while also staying at home with her 6-year-old son, Gavin, and his 3-year-old sister, Emily. But her husband lost his job, and neither she nor he could find another.
"I went from having a good life to 'oh, my god!' " Talbutt said. "Everything just snowballed."
It wasn't long before they could no longer afford their rent and were living in a motel. It was, in Talbutt's words, the "crummiest hotel" and cost $400 a week.
When the family was on the brink of having to hit the street, Talbutt was put in touch with the Illumination Foundation, which routed them to the center for help.
"We would not be in a good place if it wasn't for this center," Talbutt said.
Shawver is quick to point out that people like Talbutt, who only recently became homeless, are relatively easy to help. The difficult cases are the hardcore homeless, mainly men who do not seem to want any help.
In Stanton, it was the group that congregated around the Civic Center and its adjacent park. But, Shawver reports, the effort has even been able to reach them.
Officials have had to be firm and "hold them accountable," Shawver said, which has included making some arrests. "But if you're going to hold someone accountable you have to give them an opportunity to change their behavior," he said. "You have to come up with a solution."
Recently the last four men, who Shawver said were the hardest of hardcore, accepted an offer to try transitional housing.
"It filled my heart with joy," he said. "I live in this city, and see it all the time. They aren't bad people, they are just homeless."
Please contact David Washburn directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.