The Fullerton City Council clarified what emergency homeless shelters are at religious institutions after it amended its ordinance and added an application process so it can keep an inventory of beds in the city.

The updated ordinance doesn’t change the number of people allowed to stay at religious institutions like churches, synagogues or mosques, but city code now requires applications from the institutions so the city can get details on how many beds there are and what types of accommodations are being provided. The maximum number is 12, but council members said they’re willing to increase the number on a case-by-case basis. There are no fees involved in the application process.

“This program will allow our public safety personnel … understand there are people being sheltered in buildings that are not designed for that in the first place,” said Community Development Director Ted White at the Nov. 20 meeting.

“And it would give us that database as well as provide for a more formalized process” to help homeless people get into county programs and housing programs, White said.

Fullerton and other cities are scrambling to find shelters after a federal lawsuit was filed against the County, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange in January for the County’s eviction of homeless people living on the Santa Ana Riverbed. Fullerton is working with Buena Park on building a homeless shelter at an undisclosed location.

Attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, representing the homeless people, claimed evictions  criminalized homeless people because the evictions pushed them to city streets, where they were ticketed for camping and loitering in public places.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who’s presiding over the lawsuit, has warned OC cities of their enforcement of anti-camping and anti-loitering laws. Carter gained more leverage against cities and the County after a Sept. 4 federal appeals court decision barred prosecuting homeless people for camping in public places when there aren’t enough shelter beds available.

Mayor Doug Chaffee at the Nov. 20 meeting reminded everyone of the camping ordinance enforcement issue and said the new ordinance will help the city maintain an inventory of shelter beds.

“There’s another issue that has not been discussed. There’s a case we call the Boise case, which essentially says the city can’t enforce some if its ordinances unless there are adequate beds within the city. In other words homeless people can sleep anywhere on public property they want to unless you can demonstrate you have enough beds for them,” Chaffee said.

He continued, “It would help the city with … being able to take control of its ordinances, if it has an inventory of its beds.”

Some religious leaders in the city, like Father Dennis Kriz of St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church, said the updated ordinance could hamper efforts currently put forward by a network of churches who help shelter homeless people.

“I don’t think this ordinance will change anything as much, except make it harder,” Kriz told the Council.

Kriz also said the problem lies not so much with shelters, but the lack of housing opportunities for homeless people.

“The real problem here is not so much the shelters, is that there’s nothing behind the shelters. There’s no place to go. There’s no place at the end of the rainbow here,” Kriz said.

Kriz has been pushing the city for an overnight parking program in the church parking lot for people who sleep in their cars. Some residents and religious leaders said the ordinance targeted Kriz’s efforts. While the ordinance didn’t address the issue, the City Council did agree to work with Kriz on getting permits to allow for overnight parking.

“All I see are clarifications to our current ordinance. We already don’t allow parking overnight in church parking lots to sleep there … we don’t allow that in our city, this ordinance doesn’t change that,” Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald said. “There haven’t been strong guidelines … I do think that this is a good start to giving some clear guidelines to the religious institutions who are willing to step into this fray.”

The application form asks religious leaders to list their intake and security procedures. It also asks if there’s bathrooms, showers and other accommodations.

City Manager Ken Domer explained how the overnight parking permit process would work and said the updated ordinance doesn’t address overnight parking programs at churches.  

“We’re more than happy to work with St. Phillips on the parking. That’s a program that’s best brought back as a CUP (Conditional Use Permit) … a CUP process for the safe parking program is one of those ways they can present those plans, staff can work with them to refine those plans,” Domer said.

Mayor Pro Tem Greg Sebourn said the city has to balance community needs with complying with state building code and housing laws.

“So if it’s not designed for housing, then there’s already a state limit on that. And that’s one of the problems the city runs into. If we don’t enforce state laws, the state can impose additional restrictions on the city. So we have to balance what is being asked of us by Sacramento with what we think is good for this community,” Sebourn said.

He also said the interpretation of the ordinance could complicate efforts to open an emergency overnight shelter because it asks for specific planning documents.

“I agree that this could be looked at as too restrictive for a lot of the churches, because I’m looking at some of the things on here. A site plan for the property, a the floor plan of a space. One of the problems I’ve seen is that often times city staff will interpret that as you have to go hire a licensed architect to prepare these plans. I don’t think that is the intent,” Sebourn said.  

Sebourn later said, “I think it could be cleaned up a little bit so it doesn’t look like it’s an imposition to the churches. Because let’s face it, the churches are doing the heavy lifting out there.”

Domer said he and city staff will work with the churches on the required documents and they shouldn’t need to hire an architect.  

“The most important aspect in getting people off the street is tying them into the county intake system,” Domer said.

White said the city won’t need full architectural plans unless a church plans to make a full-time shelter.

Councilman Jesus Silva said he wanted more information before voting on the item.

“I want to get back some information on how we’re doing this … and what impact is it going to make,” Silva said. “I agree, we have to set some guidelines and boundaries … I would like to continue it and have staff meet with St. Phillips and whoever else and work with them.”

Councilman Bruce Whitaker echoed Silva’s concerns.

“This is something that very much conflicts me,” Whitaker said, adding he has to weigh residents’ concerns with the church’s’ efforts to shelter homeless people.

“I don’t favor excessive regulation. Especially when it comes to religious freedom issues … This is a tough one,” Whitaker said.

The updated ordinance passed 3-2, with Silva and Whitaker dissenting. A final vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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