A homeless person walks near the Walk of Honor at the Santa Ana Civic Center.  (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

With the Orange County Board of Supervisors considering a move to hold back funding for the county’s human relations efforts today at their weekly public meeting, the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board sat down with Fullerton City Manager Joe Felz to talk about the work of the OC Human Relations Commission in the wake of the Kelly Thomas police beating.

Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the commission and a member of the Voice of OC Editorial Board, spoke to the group about the what the commission does and why he thinks supervisors want to cut his salary.

While Fullerton wasn’t an unfriendly place to the homeless, Felz said, it became a national lightening rod after Thomas’ death. Facing a torrent of public criticism and a Police Department crippled by a slew of allegations, Felz said one of his first moves was to turn to Kennedy and the commission.

It’s not uncommon for city officials to call Kennedy, especially when local police find themselves in the midst of such public confrontations.

Felz and City Council members gave Kennedy’s commission “full authority” to lead a task force, which recently recommended a series of bold moves to address homelessness, such as moving to establish a year-round emergency shelter as well as transitional housing opportunities.

Ironically, Kennedy is actually working with Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has criticized him as a working retiree, to devise a one-stop approach to shelters that combines social and health services with basic shelter.

“We have to have a structure in place,” Felz said, noting that many in Fullerton are fearful that if they establish better services, other cities will send them more homeless residents.

Felz also credited Kennedy and the commission for helping city leaders focus on systemic changes to their approach to homelessness, one that de-emphasizes the Police Department’s role and fills in the gaps with more comprehensive services like housing, medical care and mental health counseling.

“This should be a county problem,” said Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member Debbie Cook. “It shouldn’t be thrown on cities.”

Cook added that city officials need better leadership training to deal with the complex issues raised by homelessness, especially in an environment of weakened public budgets.

Kennedy agreed that the county has to play a central role in homelessness, noting that the nonprofit community, such as the Orange County Human Relations Council, also must play an active role.

For example, when it comes time to talk about a full-time shelter, there will be real controversy over what neighborhood is chosen for the facility.

Kennedy noted that his group will be called upon to help create the understanding needed to provide a permanent shelter.

His group also will help city leaders find the resources to fund it by pointing to successful experiments, such as the Diamond Apartments in Anaheim, where residents are able to take advantage of state-funded transitional housing that eases the path back into the work place and society.

Given the unique position of the commission, editorial board member Anne Olin wondered whether there’s an opportunity to seek private investment.

Yet Felz said foundations and others are reluctant to fund what is seen as the ongoing responsibilities of local government.

And the Human Relations Commission, Kennedy noted, often goes where most won’t.

In Anaheim, after the shooting death of Angel Hernandez, Kennedy and his commission were central to helping Anaheim Police Chief John Welter address an angry neighborhood incensed over rumors of an execution-style shooting and threats of a murder contract being put out on the lives of officers involved.

Kennedy noted that after a public listening session with 200 people,  Welter told him, “We saved lives that night.”

In Santa Ana, Kennedy and his group were crucial to helping establish another listening session when City Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez compared a Jewish building owner to Adolf Hitler.

In San Clemente, the Human Relations Commission worked with Latino residents to establish better communication with City Hall on neighborhood issues and to create tutoring programs that brought seniors and youth together.

All of that prompted Voice of OC Editorial Board member Fred Smoller to note that “the amount of money they take from the county is miniscule [$300,000 annually]. You couldn’t slurry seal the parking lot of the Board of Supervisors building for that.”

In fact, Smoller, who served as a commissioner for five years, noted that given the commission’s central role to law enforcement, it should receive a slice of the countywide public safety sales tax known as Proposition 172 funds.


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