Fullerton Votes Against Running Homeless Shelter: What Happened? What Now?

After hearing from around 60 residents, the Fullerton City Council last night voted against agreeing to run a proposed round-the-clock homeless facility and multi-service center on State College on behalf of the County of Orange. That vote apparently dooms the effort to purchase the former furniture store, which has been spearheaded by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, for such a purpose.

The votes broke down along lines of gender rather than party.  Councilmembers Whitaker, Sebourn, and Chaffee voted against the agreement; Jan Flory and Jennifer Fitzgerald supported it.

Orange Juice writer Ryan Cantor, a member of the Library Board (which recently closed down the Hunt Branch in response to problems involving a nearby homeless encampment — itself recently broken up and dispersed, as covered in this story for the Fullerton Rag, which I’m going to start calling the “Frag”) had written a piece before the meeting offering his analysis of the situation that we didn’t get to publish.  We’ll include the still-relevant portions of his commentary below, then I’ll add some of my own.  Here’s Ryan, in dark red:
I have to admit, I’ve had a very hard time with this issue.  Part of it has been lack of information; part is willful ignorance, but now it’s time to ante up.  The agreement is terrible, the location is horrible, and the leadership provided by our elected officials is the worst part of all.

I doubt you’re going to read this, Mr. Nelson, but if you do — this is all your fault.

The moral complications on this issue make me physically ill.  We need this shelter like we need new water pipes.  The situation at the Hunt Library obviously underscores the present need.  We just evicted several dozen people from a semi-permanent village while this proposed shelter is two years away from opening its doors.  In the interim, the community volunteers will continue to shoulder the entire burden of providing refuge and at best the problem will only not get worse.  And that’s the only argument supporting this agreement.  As flawed as it is, we have to accept it because our alternative is the status quo, which can’t be allowed to persist.

Listing what the city should get in an agreement with the county is pretty simple.

1)      The city must have the authority and means to correct wrongs, including lost property value

2)      The county must quickly build shelters in other areas of the county

3)      The shelter shall not be operated next to a school or park

Well, instead, we got a multi-jurisdictional agreement that makes it nearly impossible for the city to unilaterally address community complaints (they must go through a multi-agency committee and only after some bean counter says we have the right number of beans in the right window of time . . . even then there’s no guarantee that anything gets fixed), the county makes no promise to build shelters elsewhere or to not import homeless citizens from other areas of the county, and the shelter is going to be next door to a school and a stone throw from a park.

Listing solutions to how we get out of this mess isn’t so simple, but here’s a good place to start.

1)      Come clean

2)      Accept responsibility

3)      Start fixing it now

Come clean.  I’ve had a very hard time understanding who knew what when about this shelter, why the location was picked, or who ultimately benefits from the deal.  It’s murky and well, nothing good ever came out of a political swamp.  Any council member who no longer can say no to Shawn Nelson, due to a personal or business relationship with him or the realtor associated with this deal, ought to come clean with Fullerton.  Perhaps it’s just a perception of partiality, but given everything surrounding this deal, we’re owed as much transparency as possible.  The rest of council ought to be honest about what they knew and when.  Mr. Nelson ought to be honest about what conversations he had and when he had them as well.  There’s no reason why we can’t hose the mud off this deal to avoid any misconception of backroom favors.

Accept Responsibility.  No elected official has ever stated they are responsible for the homeless situation in Fullerton.  That’s really the root cause of our issue.  If someone had the courage to stand up and claim this issue as their own, on pain of losing their political future, we’d probably see good things happen as a result.  Of course, homelessness is the third rail of local politics and this isn’t likely to happen.  This means you, Mr. Nelson.  Had you carried the football all the way on this one, we wouldn’t be here today.  This is your shelter and you ought to be leading the charge and taking questions from the public in a public forum to defend your decision.  Force feeding the city under threat of “Sovereign Immunity” is not demonstrating leadership or accepting responsibility.  It’s grandstanding and bullying.  Do your job, even if it means getting punched in the mouth for six hours at a council meeting.  You’re a big boy, you can handle it.

Start Fixing It Now.  We need a viable temporary solution that can be implemented in 30-45 days, certainly not 2 years.  It doesn’t need to be gold plated, but it needs to be better than nothing so we can bridge the gap to a multi-service center.  We’ve been told repeatedly that a leased property is not an option for the county.  Well, that’s bunk.  It’s within their means to lease a property and get homeless of the streets tomorrow while they look to buy the right space.  Let’s get ‘er done Mr. Nelson.

Come on Shawn.  Quit screwing around and lead.

Homeless camp Fullerton

Google images attributes this (originally black-and-white) image of a homeless camp to the Fullerton Rag, but I couldn’t find it there when I followed the link.  (Anyone from there want to claim and explain it?)

I give Supervisor Nelson more credit than Ryan does: I think that he was responding to a serious need — and that he took a significant political risk in doing so.  The process was pretty opaque, somewhat of a sneak attack on residents.  On the other hand, I don’t think that that’s what ended up derailing it; I think that a slower process involving more consultation might well have had the same result — it just may have come more quickly and may not have come as close to succeeding.

My interest here is on the interim measures about which Ryan writes.  While I got reasonably educated on homeless issues while working with Occupy (and especially Occupy Santa Ana, for which this has been their main issue), I can’t hold myself out to be an expert.  Here’s my understanding of some of the considerations, which should be taken less as “gospel truth” than as an invitation to those with more expertise, from all sides, to correct my misconceptions.

First, the homeless community is heterogeneous.  It includes everything from families with children (and pets) to the more “hard-core” homeless of the sort who were at the homeless camp near the Hunt.  These groups have different needs — and they also probably are received differently by the public.  My guess is that if people in Fullerton knew that the facility on State College would be serving families with children — people who might otherwise, if they could afford it, be staying in the motels recently discussed on these pages — they would not necessarily be hostile to the effort.

My guess (without having watched those 60 speakers) is that the neighbors’ primary concern is with safety.  I hear people talking about a criminal element, but it might be better to talk about them as “outlaws” — not necessarily criminals,  but people who put themselves outside of lawful and polite society.  They don’t want to be governed; they want to be self-reliant and left alone.  (Not all homeless single males — the bulk of the non-family homeless — fall into this truculent category.  I don’t know how prevalent it is.)

Families with children need shelter — and maybe that is a purpose to which the State College facility might be put.  “Self-reliant” homeless — maybe they don’t.  A lot of them seem to say that they don’t, that they’d rather camp out themselves — and while for all I know they may be a minority of the single-adult homeless, they still have their needs which can be addressed differently — and reasonably promptly, on an interim basis.

What are those needs?

1)      They need a safe place to store their things.  In other words: lockers.

2)      They need 3/4 bathroom facilities: sink, toilet, shower.

3)      They need a permanent address they can use.

Food, medical care — those are separate problems, ones that don’t require a “homeless facility.”  Basically, we’re talking about lockers, bathrooms, and mail drops.

On an emergency basis, that seems more doable — and much less expensive — than building a new facility.  This doesn’t require much in the way of “governance”; it just makes their lives easier, safer, and cleaner.  (Will lockers sometimes be used for drugs?  Probably.  Some of that, we can live with — but if we want to arrest people for storing drugs in lockers, we can.  They’ll hide drugs elsewhere.)

What the cities and counties would need is for the state to protect them from liability for negligence for providing “locker and bathroom” services.  Someone could put a bomb in a locker; someone could shoot up and die in a bathroom.  We don’t want either to happen, but such tragic possibilities are part of the cost of giving the hard-core homeless some of the services they most need.  And serving the needs of the hard-core homeless in such a way would make it easier to serve other homeless, such as families, in ways that are more appropriate for them, and that a community may better abide.

P.S. Matt Leslie of the Frag also has another recent story worth reading on the topic of alternative sites for a homeless shelter.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)