Orange County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to purchase a property in an industrial area of east Santa Ana with the idea that the site would become the county’s first year-round homeless shelter.
The move drew praise from homeless advocates, but also criticism from residents who live near the proposed site, as well as some supervisors, over what was described as a poor job of outreach by county officials.
“It’s been a long time coming – there’s been a lot of suffering” over last few years, said Tim Houchen, a spokesman for the homeless advocacy group Civic Center Roundtable. “People actually die out here at the Civic Center.”
Orange County is among the largest metropolitan areas in America without a year-round homeless shelter, and Santa Ana tops the list of potential locations for a shelter largely because its City Council is supportive and its downtown Civic Center already serves as an encampment for hundreds of homeless people.
Yet the planning process has left several residents and supervisors feeling left out of the loop.
Only one community forum was held on the proposed shelter site and notice for the July 2 meeting didn’t come until two days beforehand, said Santa Ana resident Dora Lopez.
“The approach that was taken did not give us an opportunity for input,” Lopez said, echoing concerns by several other residents who spoke at the meeting.
To her, that was “pretty much telling us it’s a done deal.”
About a half dozen other Santa Ana residents shared similar sentiments.
“I’m here representing a lot of my community that are seniors and not English speakers. None of us were informed…I found out about this yesterday,” said Laura Garcia. “If it’s going to be in our back yard, we should know.”
Even Civic Center Roundtable representatives complained about a lack of outreach.
“The Civic Center Roundtable was never consulted” as part of the community engagement process, said Massimo Marini, an advocate with Civic Center Roundtable. “We really disagree with the fact that you really didn’t inform the community that well.”
Yet supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson said the fact that people showed up to Tuesday’s meeting showed that the community was informed.
“That’s odd you just happen to be in the lobby today,” said Nelson.
But some of Nelson’s colleagues sided with those complaining about the lack of notice.
“I found out about this on Wednesday when I got my agenda, so it’s sort of the same issue. We just found out,” said Supervisor John Moorlach, who questioned why the vote wasn’t delayed.
Supervisor Pat Bates said key input was missing and that another forum is called for.
Santa Ana Unified School District officials “should have been commenting” on residents’ concerns about safe routes to schools on Tuesday, said Bates.
“I believe that you need to have another meeting to specifically address how you’re going to look at that issue and allay their concerns. That is fundamental to my support,” she added, to applause from the audience.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, meanwhile, agreed that Santa Ana Unified board members “need to weigh in.”
He also criticized county management for not presenting a safety plan for the shelter, particularly when it comes to homeless sex offenders.
“To come here today and not know these things is very disheartening to me,” said Spitzer. “It’s disheartening because we want to champion this, but these questions should have been answered before it came here to a vote.”
The county’s lead staffer on homeless issues responded to the criticism, saying the outreach was extensive.
“I think they did a great job getting community notices out,” said Karen Roper, director of OC Community Services. “We hope that the community will feel that they can be a part of this.”
The $3.6 million building purchase now goes into a 90-day escrow period, where the property’s condition will be inspected, before the sale is completed. After that, the county would seek bids from contractors to operate the shelter.
The 23,000-square-foot warehouse, at 1217 E. Normandy Place in Santa Ana, is located near the corner of Grand and McFadden avenues.
The county would be purchasing the property from B&N Group and JRMV Investments, Inc., who are represented by Blake V. Elliott. It would then spend another $2.3 million to renovate the building, and about $2.6 million per year to operate and maintain the shelter. Operating costs would be covered by a mixture of county, federal and private funds.
In many respects, the scene Tuesday was a replay of the effort last year by Nelson to push through a proposal for the county to buy a property in Fullerton and build a homeless shelter before getting buy-in from Fullerton residents. Faced with stiff resident opposition, the Fullerton City Council nixed that plan last June.
But a significant difference this time around is that the Santa Ana City Council, as well as City Manager David Cavazos, are already on board with placing a shelter in Santa Ana. The council approved zoning for a 200-person shelter “by right” last August.
Nonetheless, many of the Santa Ana residents raised concerns — similar to those raised in Fullerton — about nearby schools, particularly Kennedy Elementary, which lies on busy McFadden Blvd. about 750 feet from the proposed shelter.
“We already do have many homeless,” in the area, said Juana Perez, a recent graduate of Century High School.
There are several areas where drugs are used by homeless people, including nearby Madison Park, she added.
Nelson, meanwhile, said he lived three doors down from Fullerton’s seasonal homeless shelter for years without incident.
“There was never any problems,” he said.
As far as the larger issue of homelessness, speakers highlighted how rising housing costs compared to income has generated economic hardship.
“The percentage of income devoted to housing can leave many people – many families” homeless, said Jan Wagner, who spoke on behalf of all Orange County chapters of the League of Women Voters.
Every school district in the county has homeless students, she added.
Urging supervisors to purchase the Santa Ana building, Wagner said league members also want the county to “continue to seek additional sites” for more shelters.
Nonprofit representatives also offered to help provide services at the shelter, including homeless veterans advocates at Volunteers of America Los Angeles.
Dwight Smith, a longtime operator of a small homeless shelter in Santa Ana, said the county must pursue permanent housing options and find a way to address deaths of homeless people from hypothermia.
“Without an adequate and proven response to cold weather, people will perish,” said Smith.