Orange County supervisors have rejected calls by Santa Ana residents and a city councilman to consider alternatives to a county plan to put a homeless shelter near homes and an elementary school.
The proposed shelter on Normandy Place 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 last month, where speakers expressed fear that homeless residents would include “sex offenders,” talked about hypodermic needles from drug use and even raised the specter of potential serial killers.
At last week's county supervisors' meeting, activist Susana Sandoval held what she said were over 1,000 signatures from local residents and business owners concerned about the proposed location.
“Supervisors, we are your constituents. We don’t understand your lack of response” to our emails and phone calls, said Sandoval.
A residents group she has helped organize, Community United for Environmental Justice, said they submitted a letter to supervisors a week earlier asking for an agendized discussion of the homeless shelter site.
The issue was not placed on last Tuesday's public agenda, and there are no signs it will appear on future agendas.
In declining to discuss the homeless shelter issue last week, Santa Ana’s representative on the board of supervisors cited the Ralph M. Brown Act, a state law that is intended to ensure the public can participate in government decisions.
“I want to make sure that the audience – and [I] appreciate that they’re here today speaking – but per the Brown Act…this board cannot discuss on items that are not on the agenda. And so I want them to know that,” Supervisor Janet Nguyen said after the public comments.
However, supervisors apparently had several days of opportunity to place the issue on the agenda.
The letter from residents requesting the discussion is dated Sept. 9, a week before last Tuesday’s meeting and well in advance of the usual Friday deadline for adding items to the meeting’s agenda.
Sandoval was among six residents and business owners who spoke up against the location during public comments at the county supervisors meeting.
Councilman Vincent Sarmiento also sent a letter to supervisors asking for more communication between county officials and residents.
Dora Lopez, who has helped organize community members concerned about the proposed shelter site, said in her comments to the board that Nguyen’s handling of the issue has been “very disheartening.”
“You are our district supervisor. I assume you don’t care about our vote,” Lopez said during last week's public meeting.
If Nguyen truly supported residents, she added, “you need to give us more than balloons and paper fans.”
In her response to the speakers, Nguyen didn’t directly address the criticisms.
She did note that concerns have been forwarded to county staff, and that staff have participated in recent meetings on the shelter issue. Neither she nor any other supervisors expressed support for further discussion at the next meeting.
Supervisors’ Chairman Shawn Nelson, meanwhile, told residents that in the public sector, they can’t get a shelter operator until they have a facility.
Supervisor John Moorlach noted that the zoning for the proposed shelter was chosen not by the county, but the Santa Ana City Council.
“We are actually following the city of Santa Ana’s lead. They designated this area,” said Moorlach.
“And so I was a little perplexed by Mr. Sarmiento’s letter demanding to put” this issue on the agenda, he added.
The proposed homeless shelter site has become a major political issue in Santa Ana, with City Council candidates facing questioning about it at a debate last Wednesday.
Councilwoman Michele Martinez went so far as to call for repealing the council's homeless shelter zoning decision.
Many residents have questioned why a shelter couldn't be located closer to the city's Civic Center, where hundreds of homeless people currently live.
Moorlach has been a vocal supporter of converting a large, unused bus terminal next to the Civic Center into a homeless shelter. The location is relatively far from neighborhoods and schools.
The idea, however, did not gain traction among top Santa Ana city officials.
As for complaints about outreach, Moorlach said the June 27 issue of the Orange County Register included an announcement about an upcoming meeting on the proposed homeless shelter site.
Residents, meanwhile, pointed to the attendance of last month’s forum as evidence that the community was highly concerned about the shelter location, and that the issue is worthy of more dialogue.
Jose Rea, president of the Madison Park Neighborhood Association, said homeless people and local residents share the same concern: “a lack of inclusion and representation in the decision-making process.”
The proposed shelter location is a highly industrialized street with machinery and trucks, and lacks green space or sidewalks, he added.
Several local residents and business owners reiterated complaints that they were not given advanced notice about a July meeting where supervisors voted was taken to purchase the building.
“I was never notified as to the plan for the shelter” or zoning change, said Patty McDonald, who owns Saf-T-Co Supply, a business across the street from the proposed shelter.
Activist Irma Jauregui suggested that supervisors consider other shelter models, like those operated by the Illumination Foundation.
“Why not look at a different model that exists and [is] already being successful,” said Jauregui. The foundation’s shelter facilities “just blend in.”
“You took an oath for the well being of our community. Please do that oath,” she said. “We’ve heard silence. That’s the only sound we hear.”