A longstanding effort to create long-term housing for Costa Mesa’s homeless moved a bit closer to fruition Tuesday night as city leaders showed support for building up to 40 apartments near City Hall for homeless and impoverished residents.

At a special City Council meeting on the issue, council members narrowed down the site to vacant land next to the city’s police department and City Hall. It had been slated for a library, but that project has been on hold for years.

“I think we’re at a defining moment in our city’s history,” said Councilwoman Wendy Leece.

“We have to get it right, but I do think that site next door is the right site for a facility should we decide” to go in that direction, said Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger.

“At the end of the day, the community has to get behind this,” Mensinger added, saying he has some reservations about handing over as much as $5 million in city land in a rush.

In order to move forward, the project will need to overcome, among other hurdles, opposition from neighbors before a Feb. 28 deadline for key state funding, .

“This is up to the community to decide,” said Mayor Jim Righeimer, who is recusing himself from the decision because he sits on the board of the project’s co-developer, Mercy House.

Its approval will likely fall to Leece, Mensinger and fellow council members Sandy Genis and Gary Monahan.

With Leece and Genis supporting the project, it would need approval from Mensinger or Monahan — or both — to advance.

Several local residents, including church representatives, urged the council to move forward with the project, which would provide permanent housing and support services for homeless people.

“It’s a community effort, and it’s morally the right thing to do,” said pastor Phil Eyskens of The Lighthouse Church.

“We are delighted” to see this proposal from the city, said Kathy Esfahani of the Costa Mesa Affordable Housing Coalition. “We will reach our to our various constituencies and try to educate people about the need … and why this will be a very positive thing for our community.”

Some pointed to a broad-based coalition of 12 churches and more than 100 trained volunteers as key to what they envision as a successful project.

Others cautioned that gaining support from surrounding neighbors will be critical.

“You’re going to have to get the buy-in from the community, because I think there will be some resistance to this,” said resident Beth Refakes.

Just after the meeting ended, activists talked through plans for a grass-roots outreach effort.

The effort is an outgrowth of years of citizen activism, which helped prompt the establishment of a citywide homelessness task force in 2011.

Among the task force’s recommendations was the pursuit of a permanent supportive housing project, which they point to as a cost-effective approach to dramatically reducing chronic homelessness.

The idea is to quickly move homeless people into housing and give them the individualized services they need to live independently, like medical and psychiatric care, medication, appointment reminders, addiction treatment and life coaching.

“It is fiscally more responsible to provide housing for chronically homeless people,” said activist Becks Heyhoe of the Churches Consortium. “It will be cheaper for the city of Costa Mesa to provide housing in the long run.”

A study by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles supports that assertion, finding that a typical homeless person living on the streets for two years costs $187,000 in public services, while permanent supportive housing costs $107,000.

“It is 43% more cost-effective to provide chronically homeless individuals with supportive housing than to leave them on the streets, constantly cycling in and out of costly emergency rooms and jail,” the charity found.

The report added that more than 80 percent of people in permanent supportive housing “stay off the streets for good.”

Costa Mesa’s efforts also come as officials take a broader look at costs of homelessness beyond spending on public services.

Local businesses are concerned about losing customers, and residents view the quality of their public spaces, like libraries and parks, as degraded.

Ending homelessness is not just the right thing, “it’s a practical thing,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House. “It’s something that serves the entire community.”

The project would be developed by a partnership between Mercy House CHDO, Inc. and Wakeland Housing and Development.

A low-income housing project that Wakeland built in Oceanside. (Photo by: Wakeland)

While the city would put significant time and money into buiding the housing, the project’s ongoing operations would be handled by Mercy and Wakeland.

The proposed project reflects a newer era of public housing projects that largely abandons monolithic towers and institutions in favor of more human-scale developments with built-in mental health services.

Costa Mesa’s task force brought together city staff and community advocates, who went through an exhaustive process of looking at housing approaches, possible locations, funding sources and costs.

The importance of the issue was not lost on city staff.

“Lives literally hang in the balance, in some respect,” said Rick Francis, Costa Mesa’s assistant CEO.

The task force’s “big, hairy, audacious goal” is to completely end homelessness in Costa Mesa, he added.

“We would rather have a goal that’s lofty and unattainable than something that’s relatively easy to accomplish and then we give up and become complacent.”

Funding would come from the city’s general fund ($1 million), state Mental Health Services Act ($2.5 million) and federal Department of Housing and Urban Development ($585,000).

The city says the land it would contribute is worth $5 million.

And a federal tax subsidy, known as Low Income Housing Tax Credits, would also be used to raise funds.

The project’s site must be “secured” by Feb. 28 in order to receive the state funds, officials said.

Council members were presented with several project types, including buying and converting a motel, renovating existing apartments, subsidizing apartment rents or building a project from scratch.

Staff identified several pros and cons of each approach, along with their respective funding gaps.

Ultimately, council members gravitated towards building a new, 40-unit project on city land and splitting the housing between homeless and very low-income residents.

That approach has a projected $315,000 funding gap.

Staff also walked through several potential locations, with council members ultimately preferring the Civic Center site at the southeast corner of Fairview Road and Fair Drive.

The official site selection is expected to go to the full council in January. Construction could start in late 2014.

City officials emphasized the need for extensive outreach to the surrounding area over the next few months, potentially including mailings and multiple meetings per week.

“We would have a pretty significant task of reaching out to the surrounding community to inform them of what we’re planning to do, get input, get feedback,” said Francis.

Mensinger, the mayor pro tem, questioned whether the project would end up attracting even more homeless to Costa Mesa.

Haynes replied that the project wouldn’t be an entry point into the system, and that policies would be in place “to ensure that the people who are housed here are Costa Mesa-connected, not from the outside.”

“I have no problem setting boundaries.”

Mensinger also wondered whether “this is going to grow into another government project?”

The answer from Haynes was an unequivocal no, with the private sector managing the project and a series of churches, volunteers and university students lined up to support it.

“I think once the thing gets launched, we can back off and let our partners take it and run with it,” added Francis, the city’s assistant CEO.

Haynes also painted a stark picture of the reality for people with severe mental health disorders.

“They live and die in the street or we put them in permanent housing. That’s it,” said Haynes.

City CEO Tom Hatch, meanwhile, wasn’t pleased about the rushed time frame to meet the February deadline.

“What I don’t like about it is a gun to your head and to the community’s head,” he told council members. “That’s not fair in my mind.”

“Do you have to make all these vital decisions immediately? No, in my mind you don’t, Hatch continued, adding that other funding options could be available later.

Haynes disputed that notion, saying it was doubtful that the $3 million in potential state funds would come back.

The project comes amid a growing interest among local officials in combating homelessness after decades of ignoring the issue and dumping homeless people on other cities.

Dozens of homeless men and women live in the county’s Civic Center in Santa Ana, sleeping on the front doorstep of county government buildings and Santa Ana’s public library.

Advocates say they’re hugely invested in helping Costa Mesa’s project become a success story, so that it can be a model for other cities across the county.

“If we get this right,” Haynes said, he’ll want to encourage Huntington Beach and Newport Beach to develop similar projects.

“In a big-picture philosophy,” you want to solve local problems because you can flip that and make it far more exciting, he added. “There is a long-range strategy.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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