A handful of Fullerton residents armed with statistics, charts and what they described as their own good sense, appeared Tuesday at the Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting to deliver the following message: Don’t put a homeless shelter in my back yard.
The message was targeted mainly at Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who represents Fullerton and was the driving force behind the board’s decision in January to purchase property in the southeastern part of the city and convert it to a year-round homeless shelter.
The supervisors agreed to pay $3.1 million for a 29,000-square-foot building on two acres on South State College Boulevard. The purchase is an important one, because Orange County remains one of the few large metropolitan areas in the nation that does not have a year-round emergency homeless shelter, instead relying on two National Guard armories in Santa Ana and Fullerton that serve as temporary shelters from December to April.
There is further significance that a property in Fullerton is the proposed site of the shelter, because it was at the Fullerton bus depot in the summer of 2011 that police beat to death Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man. Thomas’ death has served as a rallying cry for better treatment of both homeless people and those who suffer from mental illness.
But the residents who appeared before the board Tuesday had no interest in making history.
“The target [of the project] would be homeless families, severely mentally ill men and drug and alcohol abusers,” said former City Councilman Conrad DeWitt during the board’s public comment period. “A permanent project would be inappropriate for any of those three customer targets.”
DeWitt and four others who spoke said their main concern was the safety of children who live and play nearby.
The supervisors, however, gave no indication of being swayed by the residents’ statements. Nelson said the argument is used by people everywhere when facilities like homeless shelters and halfway houses are proposed in their neighborhoods and doesn’t hold water.
“Every site is going to have the same issue,” Nelson said. “The current armory [where a temporary shelter is located] is across the street from a school. Santa Ana’s [temporary] shelter shares a fence with a school and a park.”
In fact, Nelson said, for 10 years he lived “three doors down” from the Fullerton armory and never had any issues.
Persuading individual cities to buy into a regional approach to solving homelessness has been a particularly vexing issue for leaders countywide. For example, Supervisor John Moorlach, who is chairman of the Orange County Commission to End Homelessness, has not been able to persuade Santa Ana leaders to open the city’s vacant bus station to homeless people.
On Tuesday, Moorlach praised Nelson for his efforts in Fullerton.
“I just want to affirm you and your bravery and your leadership,” Moorlach said to Nelson. “I am very impressed with your seeing the need, finding the location and now dealing with the reaction publicly.”
Nelson, who also faced criticism at last week’s Fullerton City Council meeting, concluded the discussion by making it clear that he will be standing firm on the issue.
“Of all the critics that have come forward, not one has said this is a mistake because I have a better answer,” Nelson said. “When I hear ‘I’m for solving the problem but not this way,’ I get it. But after 26 years of talking, it’s time to do.”
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