At least 250 people protested Sunday against plans for a homeless shelter at a former military base in Irvine, raising concerns about drug use and potential risks to children at nearby sports fields and neighborhoods.
The fears, protesters said, were fueled by a lack of answers from county supervisors about how safety concerns about the shelter would be addressed, more than a month after supervisors started considering putting new shelter beds on county-owned properties.
“There’s just a street in between the [proposed shelter site and a] playground and there’s multiple playgrounds,” said Gity Supervizer, who helped organize the protest. “That’s not fair for them to come dump everyone in Irvine,” she added. “This is a countywide problem…not just Irvine’s problem.”
The first public answers came Sunday night, several hours after the protest, from two county supervisors.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson, in a phone interview, said the county would not allow illegal drug use or sex offenders at the proposed Irvine site.
“You can’t be shooting up in a county facility, you can’t have sex offenders. None of those things are true,” Nelson said. “I’m just saddened that the demagoguery has been allowed to get this out of hand.”
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The supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, said the concerns about safety had been inflamed and overblown by Supervisor Todd Spitzer.
“The experience that we went through with the 750 residents so far from the [Santa Ana] riverbed in terms of minimal impact on neighborhoods shows that a lot of Irvine’s complaints are crying wolf and fear mongering by Spitzer, who promised to clear out the 1,400 homeless in the riverbed within 30 days without any plans to [house] or treat them,” Do wrote in a text message Saturday night.
“Apparently homeless shelters are good enough for the poor people of Santa Ana but too inhumane for other cities in his opinion.”
Regarding Spitzer, Nelson added: “Everyone paying attention knows what the purpose is. He’s just trying to inflame people because he’s losing in the polls, and he’s trying to be DA.”
Spitzer, who is running for district attorney, didn’t return a text message and phone call seeking his response.
He told packed Irvine City Council chambers last week the proposed shelter would put their children’s safety at risk.
“These in my opinion are the population that is the worst of the worst and they do include sex offenders,” Spitzer said March 20.
“You have the best schools in the nation. You have the safest city in the country. And now, four members of the Board of Supervisors want to put that all in jeopardy.”
During Sunday’s Irvine protest, City Councilwoman Christina Shea accused the Board of Supervisors of having “a complete lack of leadership” on the county’s homelessness problem.
“If you can’t lead – if you get elected, and you raise all this money to run for office to get elected, you focus on that job,” Shea said in an interview with Voice of OC at the demonstration, adding her criticisms were about all of the supervisors except Spitzer.
“Part of their call and their duty and their oversight is to protect the homeless and the health services, etcetera. That’s what their [mandate] is [as] county supervisors. If they can’t do that, then I’d tell them resign, and let’s get people in there that really have a concern about our community. Because this homeless population is affecting healthy people, healthy families…law-abiding citizens.”
During the protest Sunday, a least 250 people gathered across the street from the proposed shelter site. They chanted “No Tent City!” and raised signs saying “Protect Our Children,” “No Danger Near OUR SCHOOL!!” and “NO Drugs Near OUR Children!!”
“I want a solution, just like most of these folks here,” said Irvine resident Karen Jaffe, who’s leading a slow-growth ballot initiative in the city. But, she added, “how come we as a citizenry haven’t been involved in the planning process?”
Among the questions at the time of the protest were whether illegal drugs would be allowed at the shelter, how potential risks to nearby children would be addressed, and how electricity, water, and sewer service would be provided at the vacant land county officials want to use for the shelter.
Before Nelson’s interview Sunday night, answers to the questions of how the shelter would be run weren’t scheduled to be answered until April 17, when the supervisors are scheduled to decide on the operational plan for the shelter.
Nelson also noted the Irvine City Council, including Shea, zoned the property for a homeless shelter, under a state law known as SB 2.
“Christina, you zoned it for a homeless shelter,” Nelson said Sunday night. “The city of Irvine…designated this site for a homeless shelter.”
He said the Irvine property was the only county-owned property he’s aware of that’s within an SB 2 homeless shelter designation.
Nelson said Shea herself made the motion to designate the Irvine property for a homeless shelter on March 23, 2010.
In a follow-up interview Sunday night, Shea said she would have to review that vote to refresh her memory, but that the City Council never envisioned it would be agreeing to the site being used for a “tent city” without a contamination cleanup approval from the Navy, nor water, power, and sewage infrastructure.
“Never would I allow the city council to vote for some temporary tent to be built” for “dangerous people” to come off riverbed, without utilities that people would need to function, She said. “I think they’re just spinning a tale.”
Nelson responded by saying the site has already been “cleared by the Navy” and “the only reason it won’t be hooked up to utilities is Irvine won’t want us to.”
“They don’t want a shelter. The rest is details,” Nelson said.
Do said the county would not open a new shelter “without an operational plan with local law enforcement and [the] city.”
The proposed shelter is in reaction to the potential of a federal judge, David O. Carter, to ban cities from enforcing anti-camping and loitering ordinances against homeless people if he deems there’s inadequate shelter for homeless people in Orange County. That stems from a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as the Jones decision.
Carter is presiding over a federal lawsuit filed in late January by attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel on behalf of homeless people, after the county set a Jan. 22 deadline to start evicting people encamped at the Santa Ana riverbed. Sobel was one of the lead attorneys who won the Jones decision.
Carter is leaving it up to county and city officials to decide where the shelter beds would go, encouraging them to find the “goodness” within them to collaborate on solutions.
When asked about the residents’ concerns the day before the protest, Do suggested the issues had been addressed during federal court meetings with attorneys for homeless people and Carter, the federal judge.
“What makes you think we don’t have the issues you raised addressed? What in the hell do you think we do during the daily end of day conference [meetings] with plaintiffs counsel before Judge Carter?” Do wrote in a text message Saturday night.
But the plaintiffs’ counsel said the county didn’t say how they would address residents’ concerns for the new shelter beds.
“They haven’t been been discussed. We have no idea what these would look like,” said Weitzman, the lead attorney for homeless people in the federal court case, when described the questions about the proposed shelter.
“Basically we know what we read in the paper,” said Sobel, the other lead attorney for homeless people, who was on speakerphone with Weitzman.
“We learn about the shelter [plans] from you,” Weitzman said.
Carter, the federal judge, said he would allow county officials to remove homeless people from the riverbed but they’d have to do it “humanely” and provide an appropriate place for people to stay. On Feb. 13, county officials committed to providing motel rooms for the riverbed homeless population for 30 days, and then “appropriate resources” after that.
About 700 people ended up relocating into motel rooms, of whom about 610 remained when the motel stays started expiring on March 16.
County supervisors voted March 19 to explore three potential locations for expanded shelter options for the motel homeless to move to, in Irvine, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Niguel. All three cities immediately moved to sue the county over the proposed shelters.
Now, after the public backlash, supervisors plan to vote Tuesday on eliminating all three sites, before voting April 10 on putting all 400 potential shelter beds at the Irvine site. A shelter location is also being considered at a mostly-empty state mental facility, the Fairview Developmental Center on Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa.
Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting is expected to be one of the most widely-attended in a decade. At least 300 people have signed up to take buses to attend the meeting in opposition to the Irvine shelter, according to an organizer, and dozens more people are expected to speak in favor of the shelter. In addition, speakers are anticipated on both sides of an unrelated issue from Nelson to have the county fight California’s illegal immigration “sanctuary state” law.
Do is not expected to attend Tuesday’s meeting due to travel plans, and Spitzer is considering leaving the meeting around noon to attend the opening of what would be the only psychiatric hospital beds for children in Orange County.
At Sunday’s protest in Irvine, residents said they were deeply concerned about the impacts of the potential homeless shelter on nearby residents and children.
“We want to help them, but this land is not good for them to live [on],” said Irvine resident Vivian Wang, who attended the protest with her family. “We’ve been teaching our kid to…show respect to the homeless. We’ve been donating, books, toys, clothes — those kinds of things.”
The protest reflected a mixture of views about homeless people and whether they were deserving of help, or people who have declined to accept help that’s available.
One man told a protester standing next to him that if homeless people moved into the shelter site, they would “steal everything that’s not nailed down…they’ll be breaking into houses.”
County CEO Frank Kim has said no police officials in Orange County have told the county there’s been an increase in crime because of homeless people from the Santa Ana River Trail moving into motels.
“There is no evidence of them causing any problems for the community,” Weitzman said of the riverbed homeless who have moved into motels.
“And they look for it…I assure you,” Sobel said. “The amazing thing about this is the lack of evidence to support” Spitzer’s claims that a homeless shelter would threaten the surrounding area.
Nelson said there had been no crime problems connected to the county’s existing low-threshold shelter, the Fullerton armory, in the many years he lived near it. “I never had one incident in Fullerton,” Nelson said.
“The remarkable thing about this transition from the riverbed is that almost every single person has [accepted] services,” Sobel said. When people take the time to speak with homeless people, “rather then lumping people under some program,” she said, “people respond,” and they’ll accept services and “get their lives back together.”
The proposed Irvine location is on the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, just south of Marine Way and between the 133 toll road, the 5 freeway, the Second Harvest Food Bank, and soccer fields at the Orange County Great Park.
The Fairview Developmental Center location that’s being considered in Costa Mesa has hundreds of vacant residential units originally meant for people with serious mental illnesses. At its peak in the 1960s, it was home to 2,700 people, and now is home to about 130 people, according to the state agency that runs the facility.
Shea, the Irvine councilwoman, said there needs to be a countywide “summit” meeting between city and county officials on solutions to homelessness, and that she looks forward to such a meeting Carter has scheduled for April 3.
“I would say he’s taken on the leadership role that the county board of supervisors should have taken on. In fact he’s babysitting all of us, which is not his job,” Shea said of Carter.
“I’m very pleased that he’s doing it, but it’s not his job to do it,” she added. “We need to bring the communities, the [elected officials], together to find solutions.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at email@example.com.