A homeless man rests outside the Santa Ana Library. Credit: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

When Kelly Thomas lay dying in the street, it was a wake-up call that we need to set aside some of our animosities, let go of some of our suspicions and come together to do a better job of protecting this vulnerable population. It was time to make some hard decisions to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again.

Now we are faced with a tough decision that could move us a large step forward. A critical decision about the year-round multiservice shelter that was the top recommendation of our Fullerton Mentally Ill Homeless Task Force is coming up on the May 21 agenda of the Fullerton City Council.

By supporting this proposal to open a year-round shelter at 301 S. State College Blvd. in Fullerton, we have the opportunity to serve the homeless and serve the interests of all residents in Fullerton. The process involves the City Council adopting a joint zoning agreement with the county of Orange to enable the shelter.

History tells us that there are many rational reasons to do nothing. Often, doing nothing is the outcome of raising one rational reason after another until the opportune moment is lost and the action becomes impossible.

One strategy often employed by opponents who do not want to come out and admit their opposition is to kill a project by dragging it out. Some will profess support but find nothing but flaws to focus on in the proposal. Others will vilify the clients as unworthy of our concerns and time.

There is no perfect shelter proposal, location, configuration or idea. They are all flawed, but what is even more flawed is the current situation: letting our homeless children, brothers and sisters, parents, uncles,  aunts and grandparents live and die on our streets.

The National Guard Armory is also a poor solution to the need for shelter. It is just as close to schools, much closer to houses and pushes people out the door at dawn every day. Even with its flaws, however, it is better than nothing.

What we have within our reach now is a much better shelter at 301 S. State College Blvd., a setup that will help many of the homeless who find themselves deteriorating in our streets, libraries, transportation centers and alleys. They will be better served, and in so doing we will all be better off. The streets and parks will be safer for the Kelly Thomas’ of the world, as well as all of the other residents.

When we co-hosted a forum at the Fullerton Library as part of extensive outreach for input on this shelter, 320 people attended and more than 60 questions were answered by Supervisor Shawn Nelson and by the county homelessness expert, Mercy House director, Fullerton Collaborative director and Fullerton Police homeless liaison.

Some of the questions were about broad issues that were beyond the reach of this panel and beyond the impact of this small first step in our community’s effort to do a better job.

Some of the tough questions we heard that were answered included:

  • What about sexual predators? We learned it will be illegal for them to be at the shelter.
  • What about police? We learned that Fullerton police are committed to establishing and sustaining a presence at the new center.
  • What about barriers at the back of Commonwealth Elementary School? We learned that the county, the city and the Orange County Transportation Authority will work together with the Fullerton School District to create an adequate barrier and traffic pattern that will buffer the school from the alley adjacent to the shelter.
  • What about safe operation of the shelter? We learned that the operator, Mercy House, is one of the best neighbors in all of the shelters they run across the Southland. They are concerned with safety, appearance, neighborhood unity, cooperation, cleanliness and being great neighbors.

What we learned about this multiservice shelter is that it will be far better than the armory that is now in use as an emergency shelter but has few services to help put their clients’ lives back on track. The armory puts everyone back on the street at dawn every morning, unlike the proposed shelter that will be more like a home to the clients.

This shelter will include existing social services, mental health services and law enforcement services, as well as food and housing. It will take people off the streets. It will be run by people who are concerned about the local neighborhood and school as well as the homeless. These people have proven themselves to be good neighbors who make their communities safer, which is the ultimate desire of the parents and neighbors we have heard from in this process.

Now is the time to step forward and tell the City Council and county that we support this proposal.

Now is the time for communication with City Council members.

Now is the time to come to City Council meetings and support the shelter.

Now is the time to stand up and say something.

Together we can do better. Together we should do better. Together we must do better.

Please communicate with your friends, colleagues, families, congregations and clubs.

Now is the time to come together and support this proposal for the County of Orange multiservice shelter at 301 S. State College Blvd. in Fullerton.

Rusty Kennedy is executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission and also serves on the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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