Fullerton City Council Tables Decision on Homeless Shelter

After hearing opinions from dozens of residents, the Fullerton City Council voted Wednesday to table a decision on whether to support the conversion of a property in the southeast section of town to Orange County's first year-round homeless shelter.

The crowd, which packed the council chambers and overflowed into the City Hall lobby and library, included many homeless advocates, who urged council members to endorse what they see as a crucial step in the effort to alleviate the county's persistent homelessness problem.

Also in attendance were a number of critics of the plan, whose chief complaint was that the proposed site is too close to a school.

Orange County is among the few large metropolitan areas in the nation that does not have a permanent, year-round shelter. The county instead relies on two National Guard armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton that serve as temporary shelters from December to April.

The proposal before the Fullerton City Council is the result of an effort by county Supervisor Shawn Nelson. In January, the Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $3.1 million for a 29,000-square-foot building on two acres on South State College Boulevard.

There is added significance to Fullerton being the chosen site. In 2011 at the city's bus depot, Fullerton police officers created a national furor when they beat to death Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. Three officers now face trial on charges that include second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

Council members, including some who indicated support for some type of permanent shelter, said the plan they were asked to approve included too many wide generalizations and too few specifics on issues such as how neighboring Commonwealth Elementary School will be shielded and how the shelter will be operated.

Councilman Doug Chaffee said the county hasn’t responded to written concerns from school administrators, “not even a ‘we received it, we’re working on it.' "

He said the proposal for the 200-bed shelter the council was asked to approve uses too many phrases like the county will “explore” ways of doing things. “It’s all ‘shall in the future’ and ‘let’s explore,' " Chaffee said.

In addition, he said, a railroad overpass to be built across South State College Boulevard near the southern boundary of the proposed shelter’s property means the shelter probably can’t open for about two years.

“There’s ample time to work [specifics] out,” Chaffee said, urging a delay in making a decision. “Let’s do it right.”

The county has the authority to establish the shelter regardless of objections from the city, but the draft agreement is an attempt for the two government bodies to work together.

Mayor Bruce Whitaker said the meeting was the first chance residents in the neighborhood of the proposed shelter had to address the City Council. He also urged a delay.

“The council had nothing to do with the selection of this site,” he said. “If the city is to be a partner, the county has to act like a partner.”

The council's unanimous vote to wait until June to make its decision came at the end of the meeting after those wanting to speak waited more than four hours for the issue to come up. The vote was taken at 1:18 a.m. after 2½ hours of discussion and comments from the public.

Much of the meeting was taken up with a related agenda item, approved 3-2 by the City Council, to bring Fullerton into conformance with a 2007 state law that requires cities to designate zones where homeless shelters may operate. Council members Jan Flory, Jennifer Fitzgerald and Chaffee voted for it. Whitaker and Councilman Greg Sebourn opposed it.

The county is scheduled to close escrow June 15 on the former furniture store that it plans to convert into a year-round shelter.

Whitaker said the entire permanent shelter proposal so far “appears to have been mostly a real estate driven” plan.

The goal of the permanent shelter is not only to provide a full-time place for the city's estimated 300 homeless people to live but also to offer medical and other services that could help some who suffer from mental illnesses or drug or alcohol addictions stabilize their lives and find jobs.

Whitaker said he’s concerned the shelter will draw more homeless people to Fullerton rather than help solve the problem. Police Chief Dan Hughes said once the shelter is in operation, police will adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward homeless men and women who sleep in alleys, under bushes and in other public areas.

Although business owners didn’t speak at the council meeting, Flory said all members of the council have heard complaints from businesses about homeless people.

All told, more than 50 residents lined up to address the City Council Tuesday night. The issues raised by speakers included acknowledgement of the large homeless population living in the southwest section of the city and the need to protect children from homeless people who may also be convicted sex offenders.

Sherry Hoyt, principal of Commonwealth Elementary School,  saying she wasn’t speaking on behalf of the school district, told the council the school, which is a few hundred feet from the proposed shelter, has an open campus that is used after school hours and weekends as well as when school is in session.

“We all have a responsibility to help individuals get back on track,” she said, but “we would like support to make sure students are safe.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the council vote tally of a measure that brings Fullerton into conformance with a 2007 state law that requires cities to designate zones where homeless shelters may operate.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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