Fullerton Takes First Step to Open a Homeless Shelter

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The homeless camp on the corner of Gilbert Street and Valencia Avenue in Fullerton. Residents have been voicing their concerns about the camp to the City Councils for months. Oct. 9, 2019.

Fullerton is one step closer to having a homeless shelter, including some recuperative care beds, after the City Council voted to give the Illumination Foundation $500,000 to help improve a private property the foundation is negotiating to buy. 

Councilmembers were originally going to approve a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which is structured as a non-binding agreement, with Illumination Foundation for the shelter, but some on the Council said they weren’t comfortable entering into the agreement until the property is disclosed and residents get a chance to review it. 

“I’m not comfortable approving an MOU on any property that we haven’t been told about or the public hasn’t been told about,” Councilwoman Jennifer Fitzgerald said. “I just think that an MOU on any specific property has to be vetted with the public fully knowledgeable about where this is going.”

Mayor Jesus Silva called for Tuesday’s special meeting because he wanted to get moving quickly on the shelter and wanted to make sure the Illumination Foundation didn’t lose the property. 

He said residents “keep telling us, do something about this, get it done. And we’re doing something about it now and I understand the need to vet it out, but with these negotiations going on, I don’t want to lose traction on it.” 

Illumination Foundation CEO Paul Leon said as long as Fullerton committed the $500,000, he should be able to secure the property.  

Leon said he needed the city’s money to ensure the foundation’s donors that the shelter is moving forward in Fullerton and disclosing the location could jeopardize negotiations with the property owner. 

He also said the shelter will be a “navigational shelter” for homeless people. Meaning, Illumination Foundation staff will work with each homeless person to help them apply for programs and funding at the federal and state levels, while also helping them get into housing, he said. 

City Manager Ken Domer told Voice of OC that Leon made an offer on the property this week and the location will be disclosed at the City Council’s Nov. 5 meeting. 

Councilwoman Jan Flory agreed with Fitzgerald’s stance on public review of the proposed shelter location. 

“I think in order for this project to be successful, it’s going to need support of our community,” Flory said. 

The City Council voted 4-0 to give $500,000 of its low income housing money from the state to help fund the proposed 150-bed shelter, which includes 60 recuperative care beds. Councilman Bruce Whitaker was absent. 

The Council will discuss the property location and more specifics at its Nov. 5 meeting. 

Recuperative care facilities are for homeless people who get released from hospitals after treatment or a procedure and need some place indoors to fully heal. 

Since the County, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange were originally sued last year over homelessness policies, Fullerton and other North County cities have been working together to build more homeless shelters. 

Fullerton has teamed up with 13 North County cities and is helping fund homeless shelters being built in Placentia and Buena Park. The city will contribute nearly 26 percent of the two shelters’ construction costs at $309,931 and the city’s share of the expected annual costs will be $34,558, according to the March 19 staff report. 

The new shelter Fullerton is looking to partner with Illumination Foundation on will bring more shelter beds to North County cities in an effort to secure enough beds so the cities can enforce the anti-camping ordinances.

Meanwhile, the city is asking U.S. District Judge David Carter, who presides over the homeless lawsuits, if it can clear out the Gilbert Street and Valencia Avenue homeless encampment when the temporary shelter at the National Guard Armory in Fullerton opens Oct. 15. 

Because the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled cities can’t prosecute homeless people for sleeping in public places when there’s not enough shelter beds, Carter has warned cities against enforcing anti-camping laws until they build enough shelter beds for the area. Carter oversees the settlement mandating cities in North and Central county build enough shelter beds for 60 percent of the homeless people before anti-camping laws can be enforced. 

Leon said the Illumination Foundation currently runs 16 recuperative care facilities and is the largest recuperative care provider in the nation. He also said the facilities are a stepping stone to housing homeless people. 

“Recuperative care, which has been tested throughout the nation, is a really effective way to take in homeless clients who have medical or mental needs … and move them into permanent supportive housing,” Leon said. 

Permanent supportive housing is geared for people who generally can’t live on their own because they have physical or mental disabilities. The housing has wraparound services, including mental health counseling and medical care. 

Silva asked Leon how the foundation runs permanent supportive housing. 

Leon said they keep the housing small-scale and spread throughout the county, with staff at each location. 

“We own our own micro communities, which are six-bedroom houses throughout Orange County,” Leon said. “At any one time we have 900 people living in those houses spread out throughout Orange County. You probably wouldn’t know one was in your neighborhood.” 

Leon said the Illumination Foundation took in 60 people from the Santa Ana Riverbed evictions last year for recuperative care and were able to move 53 of them into permanent supportive housing. 

He said CalOptima, the county health insurance provider for the poor, pays for recuperative care beds. Not only that, Leon said, there’s plenty of state funds and federal funds that can be accessed too, but homeless people are rarely in a spot long enough to apply for those funds. 

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that our clients come with funding,” Leon said. “But they’re never in a place long enough to access the funding.” 

Flory asked him how the foundation will handle substance abuse cases. 

“When we talk about this issue that people seem to be tolerant of people experiencing mental health problems, but they’re not so tolerant of substance abuse issues,” Flory said. “How does your organization deal with that?” 

The Illumination Foundation has licensed clinical social workers, registered nurses and at least 30 substance abuse counselors, Leon said. 

“People relapse and that’s part of addiction … we don’t kick them out of the program, we bring that back to recuperative care then send them back out to micro communities (permanent supportive housing),” Leon said. 

Roughly 7,000 people are homeless in OC, according to the 2019 Point-in-Time count, a  federally mandated biennial homeless population headcount. North County has 2,675 homeless residents, with 1,596 people sleeping outside, according to January’s count and Fullerton had 308 people sleeping outside.

Councilman Ahmad Zahra said programs, like the one Illumination Foundation is trying to start in the city, will save taxpayers money in the long run and help alleviate homelssness. 

“We are paying a lot more in our tax dollars in support services of folks on the streets right now, than we would by using these funds” for the foundations proposed program, Zahra said. 

“The issue that this is a special meeting and an urgent meeting — its because homelessness is an urgent criss and for every day we wait, there are people out there dying,” Zahra said. “Like [Fitzgerald] said, this is one more tool in our toolbox that would help us.” 

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