Buena Park Residents Express Opposition to Possible Homeless Shelter

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Residents wait to share their thoughts on a proposed Buena Park homeless shelter.

Resident frustrations boiled during a town hall meeting hosted by the Buena Park City Council to consider a temporary, regional homeless shelter just north of the city’s border with Anaheim.

The Council isn’t expected to vote on the shelter until later this year and has left things open to pursue affordable housing at the site instead. But city staff predicted the proposed shelter could have at least 100 bed spaces, with admissions by referral only and no walk-outs, as well as 24-hour on-site security that would, upon Council approval, include the nearby residential areas around Lincoln Avenue and Knott Avenue in the southeast corner of town.

The city hasn’t indicated who it might be considering to operate the proposed shelter, beyond stating on a city web page its desire to model the facility after Anaheim’s Bridges at Kraemer Place homeless shelter, which is run by the nonprofit Mercy House. Patti Long, director of operations for Mercy House, was at the Tuesday town hall helping city officials answer questions from the public.

Though city staff cite an average 79-day stay period at the Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter as a potential model for Buena Park’s facility, City Manager Jim Vanderpool told Voice of OC that the city’s “current draft operation plan doesn’t have a restriction on days.”

Vanderpool also said that people would be transported in and out of the possible shelter through a shuttle service or car ride service like Uber or Lyft, and that pets and animals would most likely be admitted along with their owners.

Around 250 residents packed the council chambers to capacity and overflowed into a separate viewing rooms in City Hall Tuesday night, as council members sat among the audience to face a panel of city officials that included Vanderpool, Long, and Police Chief Corey Sianez, who all answered questions read to them from slips of paper submitted by the public.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Residents and citizens fill seats for a special town hall in Buena Park to discuss a proposed homeless shelter.

But that didn’t stop residents from raising their hands in between the question-and-answer portion of the forum and forcing city officials to address their grievances directly. At times, residents and city officials went back and forth over the proposed shelter site’s proximity to a nearby elementary school and the city’s apparent rush to purchase the property for $3.6 million back in October.

“I recognize there is some criticism of how fast we moved,” said Vanderpool during the forum. He explained he and other north county officials “scrambled” to apply for $12 million in state funding for homeless emergency aid under a “very short deadline,” which involved the Council closing escrow on the site at Lincoln Ave on Oct. 12 before the application was submitted.

Vanderpool said the efforts came amid an increase in the number of homeless people in Buena Park following county relocations of people from the Santa Ana Riverbed in January 2018, which set off an ongoing lawsuit against the county by homeless attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel. U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter is presiding over the case.

“We had no notice and we found out from getting resident complaints that these former riverbed residents were dropped off in our motels,” Vanderpool said. “The problem was brought to us.”

Almost 100 unsheltered homeless people were tallied in Buena Park, as of the county’s most recent federally mandated homeless Point in Time count, which finished on Jan. 24.

Buena Park joins a list of north and central Orange County cities scrambling to set up shelter beds amid a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Martin v. Boise last year that a local jurisdiction can’t prosecute homeless people for sleeping in public if it has fewer shelter beds than its homeless population.

Carter has called the Martin v. Boise ruling “the law of the land,” warning Orange County cities to get more shelters online or risk the inability to enforce their anti-camping ordinances.

Anaheim has resumed enforcing its anti-camping laws since a number of shelter beds have come online in the city, most recently, a 224-bed homeless shelter on South Lewis Street operated by the Salvation Army. Buena Park officials now fear that will merely push some of Anaheim’s homeless population up into Buena Park, which currently cannot enforce anti-camping laws, according to Chief Sianez.

Vanderpool said the state funds were awarded in November specifically for the site at 7101 Lincoln Ave. According to city staff, $6.4 million of the $12 million in state funds that went to the county will go toward the facility, and the rest will go to Placentia for a similar planned shelter.

And while much of the ongoing operating costs would be paid for by California Senate Bill 2 affordable housing money and other north county cities using the regional facility, Buena Park would still be responsible for an annual $150,000 primarily out of the city’s low-income housing fund, with possible costs out of the city’s taxpayer general fund, although there is no concrete funding formula yet.

In response to concerns over the site being near the Centralia Elementary School to the east, Vanderpool said regardless of whether residents live on either side of the possible shelter site, “natural pedestrian flow” wouldn’t have children walking to school down Lincoln Ave past the site.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Buena Park City Manager James Vanderpool listens to public comments on a proposed homeless shelter.

“You’re wrong,” responded one person in the audience to uproarious cheers in agreement. “I’m a grandparent. I have a granddaughter that goes to Centralia Elementary School … there’s more than 50 percent of our parents from Centralia that walk down Lincoln to the main artery which is that store, Northgate (Market). You said parents wouldn’t send kids walking that way, you’re wrong. They walk that way every day.”

Despite a large number of Buena Park residents making their opposition clear Tuesday, there was also some public support for the shelter when, after the question-and-answer portion, members of the public were allowed to address the Council in public comment.

“Most communities are resistant to shelters because of fears of increased crime and decreased property values,” said Susan Sonne, who identified herself as a longtime Buena Park resident and a member of the city Beautification-Environmental Commission. “And while there aren’t a lot of studies done, I’ve not been able to find a lot of evidence that seems to support those fears.”

“I think what’s getting lost on a lot of people is that these homeless are people. They aren’t dogs we’re trying to round up,” said resident Shanin Ziemer. “They need help and we have the ability to give them that help.”

“If we take the homeless off the street, then children aren’t having to walk past the guy peeing on the building and step over the guy sleeping on the sidewalk,” Ziemer added.

One of the residents opposing the shelter was Rebecca Kovacs-Stein, who the Orange County Register recognized in December as one of the county’s most influential people for her homeless advocacy work.

But Kovacs-Stein is opposed to building a permanent regional shelter in Buena Park, arguing that the city should instead consider a “pop-up” shelter similar to Anaheim’s recently opened 224-bed facility, which consists of portable freestanding buildings and is operated by the Salvation Army.

“We don’t need a building. We just need a vacant lot,” she said during the forum, calling the Salvation Army shelter “wonderful.”

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Buena Park City Council listens to community input on the proposed homeless shelter.

Much of the public pressure has mounted on Councilman Fred Smith, who represents the district that encompasses the proposed site. Smith indicated support for the shelter proposal during council member comments, saying “We’re all caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“Some of the people in the audience I’ve known for 20, 30, 40 years out there. And trying to come to a correct conclusion is very rough,” Smith added. “Buying this piece of property is a stepping stone making sure we can pacify Judge Carter, so we can enforce the laws and keep the people off the street and into shelter.”

Councilman Connor Traut said he didn’t prefer the Lincoln Ave site, to applause from the audience in the chambers, wondering aloud whether the city could lease another location short term while searching for a permanent property to purchase that he preferred to be in an industrial area.

Vanderpool responded that even if the city could come up with the local funding to lease a nearby property, “There are no sites available for lease.”

Assistant to the City Manager Aaron France said after the meeting that to change locations, amid the state funding, “would require authorization from the County.”

“We have to do some things we don’t want to do and bite the bullet,” Smith said toward the end of the meeting. “If we don’t get the shelter in, Carter is going to open the floodgates and they’re all going to go into Buena Park because we cannot control them.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.