Longstanding efforts to establish Orange County’s first year-round homeless shelter took a major step forward Tuesday, when county supervisors started the process to buy a building in a commercial area of Anaheim.

Following a marathon public comment session – 55 people spoke, the vast majority in support – supervisors unanimously approved a $4.25 million purchase agreement for property at 1000 N. Kraemer Pl. in Anaheim, which includes a 24,000 square-foot industrial building.

The location has drawn significant support from elected officials, nonprofit groups and homeless advocates, who say creating a homeless shelter there would be crucial for helping get many of the county’s homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing.

“The missing link in this broad continuum of care” is a shelter, said Brad Fieldhouse, the executive director of City Net, which the city of Anaheim has hired to coordinate nonprofits, churches, businesses and others on homelessness.

The shelter proposal wouldn’t just be a place to dump people, Fieldhouse added.  “This is a catalytic space for us to work with people.”

Many faith-based groups stand ready to support a shelter, noted Deborah Phares, a former executive director of the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, or OCCCO.

The proposed multi-service center “would go a long way to really help facilitate the participation of people in Orange County that really want a long-term solution,” said Phares.

At the same time, some business owners and residents said they are deeply concerned about how the proposed shelter would impact them, and urged supervisors to reject the site.

Chris Vance, who owns a piano store across the street from the property, predicted that a shelter could “easily” drive away customers and put him into bankruptcy.

“My financial wellbeing and future will lay in the balance. I will lose millions of dollars,” Vance told supervisors.  “Essentially I will be the main sacrificial lamb.”

A resident who identified herself as Ms. Allegro said many of her neighbors are opposed to the site, but couldn’t show up to Tuesday morning’s meeting because they had to work.

“I think that [the shelter] would be a detriment to my neighborhood and my area,” Allegro said.

Two residential neighborhoods are about a mile walk from the proposed shelter site.

An attorney, Kevin McCullough of the firm AlvaradoSmith, has been hired by at least one opponent, who he has declined to identify.  He alleged that the county would be breaking state law by moving forward with the purchase without conducting an environmental impact review.

County officials, meanwhile, have told the Orange County Register that such a review can’t be performed until a project is proposed, if such an environmental review is even required at all.

As for the opposition to the project, a leading nonprofit provider said it’s crucial to conduct intensive community outreach to businesses and homeowners and acknowledge their concerns.

It begins with a viewpoint that “this is not good versus evil,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House.

“When we have that perspective, we can always find ways to solve” our problems.

Orange County is the most populous metropolitan area in the nation without a year-round homeless shelter, according to advocates.  Instead, two temporary shelters are opened during winter months, and then close for most of year.

The idea behind the shelter proposal is to not only provide emergency housing but also connect homeless people with services – such as job placement, drug and mental health counseling and veterans services – in a one-stop location, known officially as a “multi-service center.”

Two previous purchase efforts for shelter sites – in Fullerton and Santa Ana – fell apart in recent years amid a community backlash alleging that the county failed to properly engage local residents on the front end of the planning process.

In an apparent reaction to that, the county plans to hold forums at night to solicit more public input, before the final land acquisition approval comes back to supervisors.

Supervisors also largely held off Tuesday on commenting about the shelter proposal, with Chairman Todd Spitzer saying such comments would be premature before the forums.

Elected official supporters at Tuesday’s meeting included Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray, Fullerton council members Jennifer Fitzgerald and Doug Chaffee and a representative of state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Orange).

“We have an opportunity to act with genuine kindness and compassion today,” said Murray.  “The resolution of that problem cannot be to continue to deter, defer and delay action.”

Two of the county’s most influential business groups – the Orange County Business Council and the Building Industry Association of Orange County – also had representatives voicing their support for the shelter.

Some business owners near the site, meanwhile, have yet to make up their minds about the proposal.

“Frankly it’s shameful the amount of homeless we have in this county,” said Brad Steelman, who owns a business near the site and doesn’t yet know whether the facility would be an asset or not.

“It’s our responsibility as business people, as individual home owners, to really address this problem.”

Supporters from several churches and Muslim organizations also spoke in favor of the project.

Zuhair Shaath of the Islamic Institute of Orange County said the shelter is “something that we need to do.”

“At the end of the day, we may not see [homeless] people on a daily basis, but they’re there and they’re alive and we hope that we give them the best of strength,” he said.

The time and location for the public forums on the shelter haven’t been announced yet, though officials plan to send out a news release with that information in coming days.

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

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