A homeless person walks near the Walk of Honor at the Santa Ana Civic Center.  (Photo by: Violeta Vaqueiro)

Although temporary and largely symbolic, the Santa Ana City Council’s vote last week to put a 45-day moratorium on a zoning ordinance that would allow a permanent county-funded homeless shelter to be located on the city’s southeast side has opened a new front for those battling to stop it.

The proposed site, near the Madison Park, Wilshire Squire, and Cornerstone Village neighborhoods, has drawn fierce opposition from residents who, along with school district officials, argue the shelter would be too close to an elementary school and put neighborhood children at risk.

Meanwhile, some county officials, as well as homeless advocates, say the proposed site is in a light industrial area and that the residents’ concerns are unrealistic and rooted in bigoted stereotypes of homeless people.

Dora Lopez, a Madison Park neighborhood resident and one of the shelter’s most vocal opponents, told the council during public comments that the shelter is “unacceptable.”

“We deserve proper representation,” Lopez said. “We want our due process and for our rights to be respected.”

Lopez and other residents have complained that the county tried to quickly push through the shelter without doing adequate community outreach.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento, who proposed the moratorium said it is intended to slow the process down and provide the community more opportunity to be heard.

The first opportunity for that will be a community forum planned for Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Century High School auditorium at 1401 S. Grand Avenue.

Also contributing to the council’s decision to issue the moratorium was a letter sent by the Santa Ana Unified School District board president to the Orange County Board of Supervisors saying that the county has yet to respond to an August letter outlining the district’s concerns.

“We believe that it is critical that the voices of our parents be heard,” board President Audrey Yamagata-Noji wrote.

“We want to be part of the solution. We understand the need for these types of facilities, and support providing needed transitional housing within Orange County,” she continued.

The message was addressed to county supervisors Chairman Shawn Nelson and was sent to all county supervisors and Santa Ana City Council members.

(Click here to read the Santa Ana Unified letter.)

Supervisor John Moorlach said “there was no intent to be surprising anyone,” but cited the fact that real estate negotiations to buy the building for the shelter by law were done in secret.

“The homeless have been here, right here, they’re on your lawn, for my entire adult life,” Moorlach said. “So we need to do something.”

Many supporters of the homeless community, meanwhile, say the opponents’ fears are unfounded and that a workable solution can be found.

Massimo Marini, an activist who helped organize a lobby group made of homeless people called Civic Center Roundtable, spoke via a camera feed from outside the council chambers and called for making the shelter a reality soon.

He said the scores of homeless people with no place to sleep and who have for years resided on the public grounds of the county government seat in Santa Ana are being “eaten alive” by mosquitoes and face daily threats of physical and sexual violence.

Marini also decried the shelter’s opposition from working-class neighborhood residents as a tragic fight between the two lowest classes of society, an ominous sign about society at large.

“Now the lowest levels of society are fighting between each other for their own right to exist,” Marini said.

City staff, meanwhile, are warning that imposing a moratorium on the shelter zoning would likely break state law, given a recent requirement that cities have zoning for homeless shelters.

Additionally, Planning Director Karen Haluza writes in her staff report that there is “little evidence” that emergency shelters cause an increase in crime or other public safety impacts.

That would make it difficult to argue there’s an “imminent threat to the public health, safety and welfare,” she said, as would be required to pass the emergency moratorium.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Michele Martinez brought up the idea of housing homeless people in the downtown Orange County Transportation Authority’s shuttered bus depot, a solution that has long been championed by Moorlach.

That idea was killed after former City Manager Paul Walters penned a letter to county leaders saying that housing homeless people downtown would pose negative impacts to the growing restaurant and business district.

But Martinez said that Walters wrote that letter without getting the approval of council members, and that the option should be on the table.

“When we talk about fairness, equity, shame on the city of Santa Ana for excluding that site,” Martinez said.

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

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