Homeless Shelter Forum Draws Hundreds as Officials Try to Quell Fears

Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

A panorama photo of the crowd at Wednesday's forum.

Local residents and advocates turned out in force Wednesday to a forum in which officials sought to reassure neighbors concerned about the county’s proposed year-round homeless shelter in Anaheim.

County and city officials used the event, which was held at Eastside Christian Church near the proposed site, to unveil a “public safety plan” that they hope will quell the fears of residents and business owners, who have mounted a well-organized opposition to the proposed site in an industrial area of north Anaheim.

It drew more than 600 people — making it one of the county’s most well-attended public forums in recent years — and featured 93 public speakers, with a majority voicing support for the shelter plan. The supporters included church members, veterans and volunteers who help homeless people.

Orange County is one of the few large metropolitan areas nationwide that does not have a permanent year-round homeless shelter. For years, county officials have tried to push through shelters proposals, such as in Fullerton and Santa Ana, but each time the proposals have been stymied by resident opposition.

However, if Wednesday’s forum is any indication, the tide might be turning, with county supervisors planning to take a final vote in November on purchasing the proposed shelter property.

Many speakers argued that building the shelter is a crucial step to ultimately helping many of Orange County’s thousands of homeless people get off the streets, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars on emergency and police services as well as reducing the number of homeless in local communities.

Father Bill Cao of St. Anthony Claret Church said his Catholic faith “compels us to advocate for the voiceless and most vulnerable in our communities,” adding that he hopes people can “come together for our brothers and sisters in need.”

Yet the forum also showed that significant opposition remains. Dozens of speakers voiced deep concerns about the proposal, particularly about the shelter leading to more homeless people near homes, schools and businesses in the area, as well as higher crime and a reduction in property values. Hundreds of audience members also wore yellow stickers declaring their opposition.

Angie Armenta said she lives near the proposed shelter site, as do her grandchildren, who play at a park two blocks from the Santa Ana riverbed where many of the county’s homeless live.

She said she doesn’t want the drug use “and the Skid Row feeling that this plan will bring to our community.”

In response to such concerns, county and city officials said they spoke with shelter operators across California to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to public safety.

Their plan’s centerpiece is to an effort to avoid loitering by having homeless people shuttled to and from the shelter from specific pick-up and drop-off sites in other parts of the county.  People who show up to the shelter’s doors would not be allowed in.

That – along with increased police patrols in the area, security guards, remote-control cameras, and a 24/7 hotline to report problems – will ensure that the shelter is a “good neighbor,” officials said.

“There will be no overflow issues,” said Karen Roper, the county’s director of community services. “The way to end homelessness is to get local communities to come together.”

The plan will “maximize public safety while addressing quality of life issues that may arise,” added Anaheim Police Chief Raul Quezada, describing the plan as creating a “highly functional, safe facility.”

The shelter also would not allow registered sex offenders or felons with open warrants to stay, they said.

Opponents were suspicious, saying previous promises by officials had been broken, and that in some cases police have failed to enforce trespassing by homeless in the Santa Ana River bed and on a resident’s front porch.

Ron Purdy said he lives within a mile of the proposed shelter and has hear commitments from government before.

“And when it goes sideways, the typical answer is ‘we’re sorry,’ ” he said.

One of the county’s panelists, meanwhile, said studies have, in fact, shown that crime tends to decrease — and property values stay flat or increase — in areas around homeless shelters.

“There simply is not the data to indicate that such a location will in fact lower the property values, will increase crime,” or other things that have been said by opponents, said Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, which provides housing and services to homeless people.

What data does support is that having a shelter that links homeless people to services “is not only the humane thing to do, but is intelligent business as well,” Haynes added.

County officials said the environmental impact report for the shelter will be available on the county’s planning website in the coming days, followed by a 30-day public review and comment period.

The document would then go to county supervisors for approval in conjunction with purchasing the proposed shelter building, at 1000 N. Kraemer Blvd. in Anaheim.  That meeting is expected in November.

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