Santa Ana NIMBYs Win Again--Now What?

Feeding the homeless at Santa Ana's Civic Center
Feeding the homeless at Santa Ana's Civic Center
Andrew Galvin

Looking back at the demise of Orange County's plan to put a homeless shelter on Santa Ana's Normandy Place, it's easy to see it as another example of spineless politicians wilting before an angry onslaught of residents who, like not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) protesters everywhere, agree on the need for a shelter but say it doesn't belong in their neighborhood.

But interviews with some of the principal players in the months-long battle yield another analysis, one that questions the wisdom of trying to tip-toe around NIMBYs, as the county, still smarting from last year's NIMBY revolt in Fullerton, arguably did. The tip-toeing inflamed Santa Ana residents, who saw it as an attempt to cut them out of the process. Later, when elected officials at both the county and city declined to utilize an anti-NIMBY provision in state law, the strategy -- if it can be called that -- failed.

The NIMBYs argued that warehousing the homeless on Normandy Place, an industrial street adjacent to some of Santa Ana's poorest apartment communities, wouldn't be in the best interests of either the homeless or the neighborhood. (See "Santa Ana Residents Unite Against Proposed Homeless Shelter," Aug. 27, 2014).

A homeless woman, Brizy Mae, lent credence to those arguments when she told the county's Board of Supervisors, "you never asked us ... we don't want it there." Where the homeless sleep now, in Santa Ana's Civic Center, "we have buses we can take to our doctors, and yet you send us far away," she admonished the board. Still, to listen to county Supervisor Janet Nguyen tell it at a Board of Supervisors meeting in mid-November, one could be forgiven a certain cynicism.

Before informing her fellow Supervisors of her decision on whether to proceed with the Normandy Place site, Nguyen publicly recounted a little history. With a note of schadenfreude in her voice, she told of Santa Ana city managers and Council members trooping to her office over the years to implore her not to put a homeless shelter at one site after another that the county was considering -- including Santa Ana's former bus terminal--until the city finally opted to create zones where shelters would be allowed.

The county patiently waited for the City Council to go through its zoning process, she said. Then the county moved to purchase a site on Normandy Place, in one of the city's approved zones. What do you think happened? Santa Ana Councilman Vince Sarmiento showed up in Nguyen's office pleading with her not to put the shelter on Normandy Place, in his ward, and suggesting -- yep -- that a more suitable location would be the bus terminal. Nguyen then gave joy to NIMBYs (and dismay to shelter advocates) by doing what Sarmiento asked: she let the City Council off the hook. Her fellow members of the Board of Supervisors acquiesced because the site was in her district.

When I recounted these events to former state Senator Gil Cedillo, he called the Board of Supervisors' decision "a failure of leadership." "Shame on them," Cedillo said. "They've got the law. They've got the tools to deal with NIMBYs." Cedillo authored a 2007 law, known as SB2, that required cities across the state to zone for shelters while giving local elected officials protection against NIMBY uprisings. Nguyen and Sarmiento chose not to use those anti-NIMBY tools, so Santa Ana's homeless will continue to sleep on concrete.

Nguyen has a plausible defense: she was only respecting the wishes of Sarmiento and a majority of the City Council. "He was all for it, and he was all for zoning it in his own area," Nguyen said in an interview, referring to Sarmiento's vote last year in favor of zoning for shelters. "He knew what was going on. They're all flip-floppers." For his part, Sarmiento criticized the county for failing to adequately communicate with residents of neighborhoods near Normandy Place.

"I think Gil had good intentions with his bill, but I think that bill also had some expectation that there would be sufficient outreach to the surrounding community," Sarmiento said. "That's where the failure took place." He acknowledged that "the county really doesn't have an obligation to do any outreach if they don't choose to. They could have just selected a location out of right." Still, Sarmiento added, "If you engage the public, even if it's not the most desirable site for everybody ...  everybody at least walks away from the process feeling like they've been heard."

NIMBYs pointed out that the county held only one public meeting about the plan, and that was on short notice right before the July 4th holiday weekend. Once neighborhood residents learned about the proposed shelter -- mostly by word of mouth -- they predictably hated the idea, and demanded to know why they hadn't been informed. Their reaction is what SB2 was designed to circumvent. The law was intended to inoculate City Councils and Boards of Supervisors against NIMBY pressure by enabling them to say, in effect, "Sorry, the shelter has the right to be there."

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But SB2 also had another purpose, and that was to diversify the geography of homeless services. When Cedillo wrote the law, he represented downtown Los Angeles in the state Senate (he now represents it on the Los Angeles City Council). Downtown LA is a magnet for homeless from throughout Los Angeles County, much as Santa Ana is for Orange County, because of the free meals and services that are available there. Cedillo wanted Long Beach and Santa Clarita to do "their fair share" by taking care of their own homeless instead of buying them bus tickets to downtown LA.

Sarmiento and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido are now suggesting that Westminster and Garden Grove (which like Santa Ana are in Nguyen's supervisorial district) step up and do their fair share. Santa Ana already has homeless shelters, but the one proposed for Normandy Place would have been the county's first year-round, 24/7 emergency shelter, open to all and offering health, counseling and other services on site. Without it, Santa Ana's hundreds of chronic homeless, the mostly single adults who don't qualify for other shelters, will continue to sleep in the Civic Center, just steps from city and county offices, including long-vacant Building 16 on Ross Street and the former bus terminal on Santa Ana Boulevard.

With the demise of Normandy Place, the bus terminal is again being talked about as a possible shelter site, but there are obstacles. For one, the building is owned by the Orange County Transportation Authority and would have to be purchased by another entity before it could be used for a non-transit purpose. For another, it is much smaller than the Normandy Place warehouse and isn't completely enclosed. In the meantime, a temporary solution, such as a "check-in center," where the homeless could store belongings and perhaps get showers, is being bandied about.

The City Council's public safety committee is expected to take up a proposal at its Dec. 8 meeting. If that goes well, it could be on the agenda for the full City Council on Dec. 16. If anything good comes out of the failure of the Normandy Place plan, it will be that community members remain engaged in finding a more acceptable site. Dora Lopez, a leader of the residents who opposed the Normandy Place site, pledged to continue to press for better conditions for the county's homeless. "We were not NIMBYs, and we are not disappearing either," she said.

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