A proposed year-round homeless shelter in Santa Ana’s eastern quarter has triggered opposition from hundreds of residents in the surrounding neighborhoods – some of the most impoverished in Orange County — who say they are already dealing with enough problems.

Over 300 people attended a community forum on the issue Tuesday night at Kennedy Elementary School. Speakers expressed fear that homeless residents would include “sex offenders” who “hide among them,” talked about hypodermic needles from drug use, and even raised the specter of potential serial killers.

But perhaps the most common theme was that these neighborhoods are already battling the challenges of urban poverty, including gang violence, among other problems. Residents say they shouldn’t be expected to also have to carry the burden of housing hundreds of homeless people.

Meanwhile, homeless people and their advocates who showed up at the forum took offense at the residents’ fear and negative stereotypes of homeless people presented at the meeting.

The residents said they weren’t properly notified or consulted before July 15, when the county Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of a 23,000 sq. ft. warehouse at 1217 E. Normandy Place. The county’s only community outreach meeting occurred July 2.

“We are a community that deserves justice and consideration… we deserve and demand to be informed about what goes on in our community,” said Dora Lopez, a resident of the Madison Park neighborhood, to applause from the crowd.

“Respect,” whispered an audience member in response to Lopez’s comment.

Orange County is among the few large metropolitan areas in the nation that does not have a permanent, year-round shelter. The county instead relies on the National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana as temporary shelters from December to April. 

Other permanent shelter proposals have so far fallen apart in the face of community resistance. A site in Fullerton was floated as a possibility, but that idea collapsed after the Fullerton City Council rejected the plan in a 3-2 vote last year. County supervisors opted not to override the council.

And in 2012, county Supervisor John Moorlach’s plan to turn a shuttered Santa Ana downtown bus depot lost steam after stiff resistance from top city officials. Then-City Manager Paul Walters strongly opposed the site because it was just blocks away from a dense cluster of downtown businesses, including a blossoming restaurants scene.

So far, Santa Ana leaders aren’t offering the same level of resistance to the current plan. But they are offering some rare attention to a community where residents feel a sense of neglect.

Several council members and the city planning director attended the forum, but spokeswoman Tanya Lyon said that the site selection was under the county’s jurisdiction and city officials were only there to listen to community concerns.

The council last year approved zoning to allow homeless shelters in industrial zones by right, but not within 500 feet of residences, parks, child care centers, schools, or within 300 feet of another shelter. A zoning action to allow homeless shelters was required under the state’s 2008 law, SB2.

Residents say the proposed site is a bad idea because several schools – including Kenedy Elementary School – are nearby.

They also said the area’s industrial businesses – including heavy trucks, narrow streets and no sidewalk – make it dangerous not just for current residents but also for the planned influx of homeless people.

They said they want to be compassionate toward homeless people, but that the location wasn’t right.

“It is a mandate. We do have to have a heart,” said Irma Jauregui, president of the Wilshire Square Neighborhood Association.

Yet clearly the biggest concern was the idea that homeless people are generally more prone to be dangerous.

“Having more homeless people would be a little more of a risk toward us,” said Juanita Perez, a recent Century High School graduate.

Members of the group Civic Center Roundtable – a group whose homeless members sleep outside at the Orange County Civic Center – who attended the forum took issue with the assumptions made by the residents.

“I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink… not every homeless person is the same,” said a homeless man who claimed his name was Boston Massachusetts. “I’m just down on my freaking luck.”

Massimo Marini, a former Occupy Santa Ana activist who helped the Civic Center homeless people form their group, said the forum didn’t include room for all stakeholders other than neighborhood residents.

Marini said the residents had engaged in “hate mongering.”

And he criticized the crowd – mostly Latino – of not showing the tolerance and compassion demanded of true Christians.

“A lot of these people go to church,” Marini said. “Jesus Christ needs a place to stay, and you just kicked him out of your house.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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