Huntington Beach City Council Lets Homeless Service Center Stay—For Awhile

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Beach Cities Interfaith Services in Huntington Beach with a view of the county owned empty lot behind Nov. 3, 2017.

The Huntington Beach City Council has pulled back from an earlier plan to quickly evict a religious-based organization that provides food, clothing and support services for the city’s working poor residents, non-residents and homeless people.

The seven-member city council at its meeting Monday heard from supporters of Beach Cities Interfaith Services (BCIS), including two former mayors and religious leaders from the Christian and Jewish faiths. Afterward, the council decided not to take any action on an item from City Manager Fred Wilson that would have ended the group’s permit Jan. 8. Instead, Beach Cities Interfaith Services will be allowed to stay until its city permit expires Oct. 13, 2018

“Homelessness is not a crime. Being poor is not a crime. We heard over and over again that this is a city of compassion and kindness and I find myself wondering, in your eyes, who’s entitled to that compassion and kindness?” the Rev. Christopher Montala asked council members during public comment.

Beach Cities Interfaith Services has had a city permit to use a small mobile building on county land near the city’s Central Park and Sports Complex since 2013.

The center’s building sits on a dirt lot with warehouses on one side, a big field behind it and the edge of the sports complex on the other side.

According to a city staff report, the area has experienced a 92 percent increase in police calls, an 84 percent increase in emergency calls, a 44 percent increase in auto theft and nine illegal fires near homeless encampments.

Cancelling the center’s city permit originally was on the council’s consent calendar until Mayor Barbara Delgleize pulled it after the lengthy public comment, including about 20 people who spoke in favor of BCIS. No commenters spoke against the center.

“I want the other council members to weigh in on this,” Delgleize said, adding BCIS and the neighborhood issues haven’t been publicly discussed.

“Yes … county wants to do stuff with this land, that’s not us, that’s the county,” Councilman Erik Peterson said during council deliberations. “Statistically, crime has gone up in that area … whether it’s completely caused by (BCIS) or not, it has occurred since its inception.”

A county spokeswoman said Tuesday evening the county licensed a portion of the land to Huntington Beach on the condition that it only be used for a foodbank with unpaid volunteers. The county currently has no plans for the land.

BCIS supporters say crime, drug use and homelessness have increased throughout the city and it’s unfair to blame the center for the rise.

The Rev. Karen Maurer, executive director of BCIS, said homeless people are going to use libraries, parks and other public facilities because “they know where to go when it’s cold or when it’s hot,” and which places offer internet. She also pointed out the problem isn’t unique to Huntington Beach and cities all over the region are experiencing the same thing.

Additionally, an annual police report shows 4,629 total citywide crimes for 2014, a decrease from 5,296 in 2013. In 2015 the number of crimes jumped to slightly higher than 2013, with 5,362 total crimes in the city.

“BCIS has to encourage your clients to be somewhere productive and somewhere productive isn’t sending them to the park or sending them to the library,” Mayor Pro Tem Mike Posey said during deliberations.

Rabbi Stephen Einstein recounted a biblical story of a compassionate message for the poor being passed down from God through a prophet.

“What mean you that you crush my people and grind the face of the poor? That’s God’s question to each one of you,” Einstein said during public comment.

Former Mayor Ralph Bauer, along with others, reminded council members the city signed a 2013 compassion charter that signaled the city would be engaging in activities and with groups like BCIS.

“I hope that you will not betray the homeless by moving the BCIS … if you vote to do it, all I can say is, ‘Shame on you,’” Bauer said.

But during the council’s deliberations, Posey said addressing the public’s concerns of compassion and kindness “means we have to be kind and compassionate to all and to preclude citizens from having access to the park or the library is not being kind to those who are supplanting that kindness to be kind to somebody else.”

The BCIS service center on Gothard Street between Ellis and Talbert Avenues helps not only local homeless and housed, low-income residents, but also those from surrounding cities like Fountain Valley and Westminster. The center currently serves nearly 1,200 housed, low-income people and over 1,000 homeless people, according to the center, and 81 percent of their housed clients are Huntington Beach residents.

“You have a responsibility to protect and serve everyone in your city. Everyone. Not just the people with money,” Montala told the council.

Former Mayor Shirley Dettloff told the council the city should have a plan if it was going to revoke the permit.

“So far, I’ve seen nothing to show that the city is willing to undertake all the work that the BCIS does,” Dettloff said.

Resident Mary Herber said council members should visit the center to see what happens there.

“If any of you council members have not yet paid a visit to BCIS, shame on you! You are only as good as you are close to the facts,” Herber said during public comment.

In an interview after the meeting, Maurer said while Delglaize, Councilmen Billy O’Connell and Patrick Brenden have visited the site, the other four council members haven’t.

Former Marine and Vietnam veteran Tom Wesley is the site manager for the center and said most of the people they help are respectful and don’t hang around the area. He helps coordinate the efforts by volunteers at the center and each person who comes in for services has a file — much like a medical file — that tracks when the individual has visited, what services they received and what their housing situation is. Each person must have a photo identification.

The center offers clothing and limits the number at two articles a day and they said they try to keep it to four articles a week so there’s enough to go around.

The center offers two bags of groceries a month to low-income Huntington Beach residents and one bag a month for non-residents. The bags usually consist of pasta, canned fruits and vegetables, rice, canned meats and some toiletries like toothpaste and toothbrushes. Wesley said they’ll increase the amount they put in the bag if there’s more than three people in the household.

On Nov. 3, Wesley and the volunteers had dozens of packets of pre-made beef stew in a refrigerator that were to be distributed with the groceries. That afternoon a mother with two children came in and made a sizeable donation of clothing to the center.

BCIS also offers diapers for all ages, pet food, soap, shampoo, conditioner and women’s hygiene products. Sometimes the center also gets fresh produce donated to it.

“I always make sure it’s fresh. If it’s not, I dump it,” Wesley said during a tour of the center for a Voice of OC reporter.

Wesley also picks up mail twice a week for people who sign up for the post office box the center offers.

Also during the tour, a volunteer who Wesley said is autistic, stopped in to help clean the center.

“It’s important for him to help,” Wesley said, adding that volunteering helps give him and others a sense of belonging and giving back to the community.

Maurer said that at least 15 different organizations from all religions help contribute clothes, food, toiletries and over-the-counter medicine.

“I feel like we got a miracle,” she said of the council’s delay in cancelling the permit.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.