Fullerton is joining a growing number of Orange County cities building homeless shelters and recuperative care centers for people who need to recover from medical procedures and injuries.
City Council members declared a shelter crisis in July and in October they committed $500,000 to help the nonprofit, homeless services provider, Illumination Foundation build Tuesday’s approved shelter by Fullerton Airport, near the corners of Magnolia and Commonwealth Avenues.
The Foundation has been working with Ashwill Family LP and nearby businesses to address concerns, like raising the fence around the property to eight feet and informing people about the shelter’s security, which includes metal detectors and a no illegal drug use policy.
Ashwill appealed a Planning Commission December decision to allow the shelter and the City Council denied the appeal Tuesday on a 4-1 vote. Councilman Bruce Whitaker dissented, citing community outreach and transparency concerns.
The Foundation’s CEO, Paul Leon, said he’s been meeting with nearby residents and businesses for months.
He’s also had help from Father Dennis Kriz, who heads up the Tri Parish Coalition — an interfaith group that advocates for homeless shelters and housing. Kriz has also written various Voice of OC opinion posts detailing the deaths of homeless people throughout Orange County.
“We feel much better than any other place we’ve done because we’re in a different time when the community realizes we need this and it can help more than it can hurt,” Leon told Voice of OC.
Nearly everyone supported the shelter at Tuesday’s meeting.
“What’s happened, I think, is a lot of times is people who proposed to build these shelters don’t do the groundwork and get the support. So, when people get the wind of these shelters in their cities, they’re afraid it may not be well run,” said Tri Parish Chairman Mike Clements in an interview. “They come out and sometimes they’re loud and they scare off a lot of the elected officials.”
The Council chambers were packed with Tri Parish members and their supporters, who all wore white.
“Because of your support and your advocacy, you have made our decision very easy tonight. I thank you for that,” Councilwoman Jan Flory said.
Fullerton’s increased efforts to shelter homeless people — along with cities like Santa Ana, Anaheim, Placentia and Buena Park — stem from a 2018 federal lawsuit against the County over its homeless policies. Because of the lawsuit, the County and cities were barred from enforcing no-camping ordinances.
The lawsuit was filed by attorneys on behalf of homeless people who lived on the Santa Ana Riverbed and were being evicted by the County but had no place to go. The attorneys, Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, argued the lack of shelter beds and no-camping ordinances effectively criminalized the homeless population.
The suit was originally against the County, Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange, but eventually all OC cities became interested parties in the case.
U.S. District Judge David Carter presided over the lawsuit and insisted the County and cities build homeless shelters throughout the region before he would allow cities to resume enforcing anti-camping laws on public land.
There are nearly 7,000 homeless people Orange County, according to the federally mandated 2019 Point in Time Count, a biennial homeless population headcount. More than half, nearly 4,000, sleep outside.
CalOptima, which administers health insurance for poor people in Orange County, estimated about 10,000 of its members are homeless. The agency looked at a 12-month period for its count, instead of a two-day snapshot the Point in Time count used.
Santa Ana, which is home to the most homeless people in Orange County at roughly 1,800, also hosts the most shelter beds with at least 650 beds, including a County-run shelter and a city-run shelter.
Councilmembers in Santa Ana, along with numerous other North and Central County cities, have criticized South County cities for not building shelters and providing services to homeless people.
Santa Ana Councilmembers decided to sue the County, Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano for allegedly “dumping” homeless people in the city, according to the Orange County Register. The suit was filed Jan. 13.
Santa Ana, which opened a 200-bed year-round shelter late 2018, argues South County cities have been dropping people off at the National Guard Armory, which services as an overnight homeless shelter during the winter.
There’s also a 200-bed armory serving as an overnight winter shelter in Fullerton.
Carter is scheduled to hear the case Feb. 4.
Five South County cities were sued by Housing is a Human Right OC over the homeless policies and lack of shelter beds last year. U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson nearly threw the whole case out when he dismissed all the cities but San Clemente. Sobel and Weitzman represent the housing group.
A portion of the South County lawsuit’s goals looked to be achieved last July, when a settlement agreement in a separate lawsuit overseen by Carter restricted most of South County from enforcing no-camping laws until enough shelter beds are built.
The riverbed evictions, combined with the inadequate number of shelter beds, created an increase in homeless camps spread throughout North and Central Orange County. Small encampments began popping up in parks, railroad tracks, freeway underpasses and around vacant buildings.
For months, Fullerton residents voiced their concerns to Councilmembers about a growing homeless camp on the corner of Gilbert Street and Commonwealth Avenue. Their concerns prompted Councilman Jesus Silva, mayor during 2019, to talk with Carter about clearing out the camp.
In October, Councilmembers authorized an overnight parking program for homeless people because throughout most of Fullerton, overnight parking is not allowed on the streets. The parking lot is near the railroad tracks by City Hall and has portable restrooms for people who stay there from 6:30 pm to 6:30 am.
Eventually, Carter allowed Fullerton to clear out the homeless camp last month.
Leading up to the Fullerton camp clearout and the. Jan 21 City Council vote authorizing the incoming 150-bed shelter, the city teamed up with 12 other North County cities to help fund and build homeless shelters.
While Buena Park and Placentia will host homeless shelters, the other North County cities will help fund construction costs, along with operating costs.
Fullerton 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 in Fullerton is expected to open sometime in the spring, Placentia’s 100-bed shelter will open in March and Buena Park’s 150-bed shelter is expected to open in the summer, according to respective city officials.
Meanwhile, cities should start looking to build housing designed to address the medical and mental needs of homeless people and move them out of the shelters, said David Gillanders, executive director of Pathways of Hope, a nonprofit homeless services provider.
“I hope this momentum continues into a plan that provides permanent housing to both families and individuals who are struggling with getting out of homelessness or maintaining their housing, given the incredible cost of housing and lack of availability of affordable housing for working people,” Gillanders said in an interview.