Shawn Nelson’s Road to Damascus, and other homelessness desmadre.




That’s kind of what it looked like, to see Supervisor Shawn Nelson startle the world and his colleagues last week with an urgent, “emergency” call to find “beds” for all OC’s homeless on county-owned property within a month, just a week after being exposed as the original driving force for displacing riverbed homeless camps with boulders and “rip-rap.”

But Shawn is having none of that!  Thunders the choleric supervisor when reached over the phone: “I’ve been working hard on this problem for six years now and I keep getting my ass kicked!  You stick your neck out on this homeless issue, and all you get is shit for it.  Fucking A man, I could have blown this all off, but I really care and I wanna get something done.  Ever since I tried to replace the Armory, and then Fullerton shoved it up my ass…”

From others’ points of view, speaking of that Fullerton desmadre, none of Shawn’s former friends and acquaintances in Fullerton, including nobody on the council, had been consulted even as a courtesy, before receiving notice that the Supervisors wanted to build a new homeless shelter on State College a couple miles north of the 91.  And they say that a good friend of Shawn was slated, based on a no-bid contract, to receive $100K for that purchase, and that Shawn was actually overheard saying he was going to “shove this up Fullerton’s ass.”  But it’s entirely possible that Shawn’s glossary of political metaphors is confined to forcible anal actions, and he has a lot more examples of how he’s been trying to improve the homeless situation during his entire tenure:

For example, he says (as far as I know correctly) that he put a lot of effort into getting shelters approved in both Santa Ana, and Anaheim’s “Karcher property,” but was stymied both times by NIMBY’s rallied by politicians – Vince Sarmiento in SA, and “that damned Jordan Brandman” in Anaheim, who dreamed and may still dream of a huge sports complex in that area.  Backing Todd Spitzer’s small, out-of-the-way shelter on Kraemer Place (slated to open some time this year) he still has to suffer through critics decrying the (so-far) $10-million price tag, and the fact it’ll only help a small fraction of OC’s homeless.

I attempt: “The Voice of OC quoted you saying…”  Shawn interrupts, “I don’t care what they wrote.  I’ve NEVER been quoted correctly in the press.  Except for you, Vern.  I don’t care about the Voice of OC.  Unless it’s Norberto.”  But it shouldn’t be such a big question, this was a report based on his comments at the end of a BOS meeting which we can all see, so let me link to it and transcribe (, go to 3:24:20:

“…This affects us all, we’ve been talking about this homeless issue, I’ve been bleeding on this battlefield … virtually since I got here, and I’ve lost most of the battles, but my ask of the CEO is this:  The county does not own a lot of property but we own some.  And I just ask the CEO, that every parcel that the county owns, that if it’s feasible, to put an emergency temporary shelter… I just ask that you come back and let us know what we have that’s even possible… something that’s out in the Canyon is not really possible, not near streets and services, but colleagues:  Until we can at least answer the question that every person that wants a cot, meals, shower and a restroom, till we can offer a bed for every person – not a house – I mean I’m talking literal – just a tent, with cots, and showers and everything, until we can answer that question, I think we’re gonna continue to lose this argument.  

“And I think we, we’re gonna be guaranteed a few things:  No matter where we put this it’s gonna be unpopular, and we’re never gonna make progress until we can at least figure out how to answer the question … we have a bed for everyone that wants it.  And we’re gonna find out that a lot of ’em don’t, the Armory is not full, the Civic Center is not full.  But unfortunately what happens is there’s so many people on the riverbed, that they say you can’t house all these people because there’s only fifty slots available at the Armory.  If we had 500, I don’t know that we’d get any takers, but we have to at least be there for them.  And then we’ll start working backwards with why the people don’t want the services, if they don’t.  But I just ask that we identify where would we go if an emergency basis – if we had an earthquake, we’d have to figure it out.  Where would we go with about 400 beds?  It’s not all gonna be the same place.  Maybe it will.

“But we own property, and I think it’s important for the Board to be presented with, if we had to place 400 beds available, within the next month instead of the next five years, where would we do this emergency effort?  We’re not gonna go procure a realtor, we can’t go shopping, we’ve learned hard from the city of Santa Ana that we can’t even look where people tell us to, cuz they’ll change their minds and ambush us.  What do we control, that we don’t have to ask anyone?  That we at least COULD do something?  And then we’ll have the whole discussion, at some point on the agenda, whether we have the will and the desire to actually do anything.  But step one is ‘Where would we put it if we had to put it in the next month?  What do we already have in our inventory that could accommodate this?’ Thank you.”  

[Then Lisa Bartlett pipes up on the importance of the federal government helping out; and CEO Frank Kim starts to ask for clarification and Shawn continues…]

“I’m assuming [we’re looking for] flat dirt, empty building, warehouse building, not an office building .. some old … I mean, not Tustin aircraft hangar is not what I’m suggesting, but anywhere we got room, it’s probably gotta be over two acres, and it’s gotta be accessible, I mean if it’s behind a dam, rule it out, that’s not realistic, but … the field off of Grand comes to mind … we don’t need to get into it.  You just look at the inventory, tell us what we got, where is it possible?  There are a lot of facilities that are temporary structures.  I mean, the showers are on trailers, restrooms are on trailers, and I’ve been warned not to call it.. it’s a lifted structure, sure looks like a tent to me, but … apparently that’s a nicer word, but… Marines do all kinds of things out of tents for long periods of time… but this is emergency stuff, it’s sort of bottom-basement, it’s not ‘the answer,’ it’s just a step.” 

Okay, there is one spot where The Voice’s Nick Gerda at least gave us a slightly different impression of what Shawn said than what he actually did:  Nick wrote, “One option he gave was empty lots where the county could set up portable restrooms, showers, and tents.”  And, from that, many of us thought Shawn was suddenly open to a relaxation of camping ordinances like Anaheim’s, where folks could camp like actual Americans.  In fact, if I could have got a word in edgewise on the phone with Shawn, I would have said, “The times I agreed with you in the past six years is when you were being libertarian – homeless folks should have the right to camp AT LEAST until there are options available, and I’m glad you seem to agree…” pero Shawn clarified himself without me being able to pose the question:  He was envisioning TWO BIG TENTS on some to-be-named county-owned vacant lot(s), one for single males and one for single females.  (And he sound very severe, for a “libertarian,” on the subject of the homeless guests FOLLOWING “RULES!”)

Another question I couldn’t get through to the very impatient supervisor – I kept trying to tell him, “Our new Councilman José Moreno has located an abandoned building or two, and has directed city staff to see if it’s possible for Anaheim to buy that building and then lease it to the County for a homeless shelter.”  But just hearing about a mysterious possibility of a building makes Shawn fly into a rage.  “For the third time, Vern, let me help you not sound ignorant.  I’ll drive home tonight and see THREE great buildings.  But I need to know a few things – who owns it?  Is it for sale?  What’s the price?  And what’s the zoning?  Otherwise it’s all bullshit!”  So, I eventually gave up on determining if José’s basic concept is workable:  a city buying a building and then leasing it out to the county.

Well, whatever!  There’s enough good stuff  said on the record here, for us homeless advocates to push forward with, and make sure something comes of it.  There’s nothing on the topic agendized for the next Supervisors’ meeting, which is this coming Tuesday, but it seems like the perfect opportunity for us “Peope’s Homelessness Task Force” to present Nancy West’s new concept, “Al Fresco Gardens” (which we’ll describe in greater detail soon on this blog.)


Mel Gibson has provided a good metaphorical dramatization of our discovery of the real forces behind the Anaheim Council’s refusal to repeal the cruel and unconstitutional Camping (or “Seize and Destroy”) Ordinance.  The non-profits who nominally exist to serve the homeless turn out to be the ones telling our councilpeople that our homeless can NOT be allowed to camp in comfort and warmth, or they will be much less likely SEEK OUT HELP from these same nonprofits.  We see now that the nonprofits’ – CityNet and its orbit of an amazing 100 groups’ – highest priority is keeping themselves necessary, and keeping the $90K a year coming from the city taxpayers.  It’s time for us to look a lot closer at the performance and motivation of Anaheim’s nonprofits, and we knew this a year ago or more.


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.