The Costa Mesa City Council Tuesday night approved plans to develop permanent housing for homeless city residents and in doing so took a step in repairing a reputation for hostility toward the homeless.
On a 4-0 vote, council members gave the go-ahead for Mercy House Living Centers, which runs the county's two temporary homeless shelters, to partner with developer Wakeland Housing on a project that could create as many as 50 permanent housing units specifically for the city's homeless population.
“It’s a great moment in our history here,” said Councilwoman Wendy Leece. “We are serious and want to do something to help homeless people get their lives back together and get off the street.”
Councilman Jim Righeimer abstained from voting because he serves as a volunteer board member of Mercy House.
In addition to housing, the project would include support services, potentially provided by “wrap-around centers” where homeless people could apply for supplemental Social Security benefits and mental health services.
Another option is to have church members provide the support services.
Costa Mesa is prepared to invest "a few hundred thousand" dollars from its general fund on the project, in addition to hundreds of thousands in state and federal funds, said Muriel Ullman, the city's consultant for housing and homelessness issues.
A predevelopment agreement, which is required for the city to receive $411,000 in federal Housing and Urban Development funds, is expected to come before the council on May 21. A location for the project has not yet been selected.
Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes said the project could end up being a "tipping point" in the regional effort to end homelessness.
"If Costa Mesa steps up and does what it can and should do, doesn't it make sense that Newport [Beach] would want to follow suit?" Haynes said. "It not only becomes the right thing to do, it becomes the expected thing to do."
The plans in Costa Mesa follow a decision by the Orange County Board of Supervisors earlier this year to put a permanent homeless shelter in Fullerton. The Fullerton City Council has yet to approve those plans.
The Costa Mesa project’s approval is a departure from the attitude that city leaders displayed in the recent past toward the homeless population.
Last October, 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.
Beyond these specific examples, there is a general sense that the city's council majority has been more interested in developing policies to push homeless people out of the city than to policies to serve them.
In addition to approving the housing plan Tuesday, the council approved updates to its ban on camping and storing personal property in public places.
Tuesday’s changes bring the ban into compliance with state law and a federal court ruling, including requiring that a notice be posted when seizing personal property. It also expanded the list of items that can't be left in public areas, Ullman said.
Advocates for the homeless say that laws like this result in the "criminalization" of homeless people.
"Of the 250 largest cities in the country, over half of them have laws on the books that criminalize homelessness," said Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless, in a recent interview. "And in recent years that number has grown exponentially."
At a conference on the issue last weekend at the UC Irvine School of Law, homeless advocates spoke of cities employing security guards and taking other extreme measure to rid their streets of homeless people.
Ullman defended the ordinance, saying it goes hand in hand with the housing proposal and is part of a comprehensive plan in the city to end homelessness. She went on to say that whenever the city passes such an ordinance, it is accompanied by a "soft solution" aimed at serving the needs of the homeless population.
In this case, the city is working with faith-based organizations to provide storage areas for homeless people to keep their belongings.
"What we have is not an effort to criminalize a homeless person," Ullman said. "It's an effort to make a safe and sanitary community for both homeless and nonhomeless people."
Haynes said homeless advocates should give the city more credit for its efforts, especially in recent months.
"I can understand the outside perception," said Haynes, who is a Costa Mesa resident, "but I think the city's reputation is not as deserved as one might think — and what the City Council did tonight is an example of that."
Nick Gerda contributed to this report.
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