"Is Supervisor Spitzer here today?" asks Michael Chew, founder of Orange-Riverdale Homeowners Alliance, as he surveys the standing-room-only crowd assembled inside the overflowing banquet room at the Embassy Suites in Anaheim on Aug. 5. "We extended an invitation for today's event to Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer but have no returned emails." People shift around to see if anyone will answer. "This is the community he represents," Chew remarks. "That's a concern."
The audience laughs and scoffs. After all, Spitzer is supposed to be the group's highest-profile ally, but he's nowhere to be seen. The war on homelessness is a high-stakes venture for this alliance, which is all about making sure the homeless–and all the problems they have–go away, at least to some other neighborhood.
The alliance believes 1000 N. Kraemer Place in Anaheim is the wrong location for the county's proposed year-round, 200-bed homeless shelter. Along with BetterSolutions4Anaheim, the group decided to host the event after the Board of Supervisors canceled community forums that were meant to incorporate local input into the shelter's development process. One of those forums was supposed to be held the same day as the Aug. 5 event.
"Supervisor Spitzer announced that there would be three community forums and the county would be active with the community and site," Chew tells the audience, which laughs derisively. "In July 2015, the county had one community forum meeting, and it didn't answer anyone's questions. Now the meetings are canceled. How will public safety be conducted? How will overflow be handled? How will a homeless shelter affect nearby businesses and residential values? It's been five months since they've started this process, but none of these basic questions has been answered."
This scene is strangely similar to what happened last year when the county proposed a year-round shelter in Santa Ana, as well as when the idea was brought to Fullerton the year before that. NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) protesters have come together to crush the proposal, arguing that a homeless shelter would jeopardize public safety, affect business and decrease property values. "No one's arguing with the need for a shelter; it's just that the whole process has been bad," says Matt Cunningham, one of the event organizers and the conservative blogger behind Anaheim Blog. "The county picks it, talks about buying it, and [it doesn't] answer any questions. Everybody finds out information by accident."
Currently, the Kraemer Place location is undergoing a review pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. The process will likely take longer than the originally planned 90-day period. This means NIMBYs will have more time to pressure the county to vote against it–a decision that will be made in September.
This year's complaints largely revolve around a homeless encampment in the riverbed under the 5 freeway in Orange. Most people either feel generally uncomfortable around the homeless or have had firsthand bad experiences with them. At the forum, Mike Alvarez, the only Orange City Council member to vote against the shelter, acknowledges the encampment is a nuisance. "Orange [Police Department] patrols the riverbed throughout the freeway," he says. "So I know the problem is huge along the river trail. And it's not just there–it filters throughout neighborhoods."
"I take my walk there on the riverbed, and it's scary seeing homeless people there," a woman in the audience comments. "I only saw one man with a badge talk to them."
Nearby business owners are just as worried about the proposed shelter. "There still might be people buying pianos from me even if the shelter opens, but there'll probably be fewer people coming in," Chris Vance, owner of Piano Empire, says before the banquet room audience.
"How do you deal with that strip club next to you?" a woman in the crowd interrupts.
"It gives the homeless a place to go," a man answers.
"It's not a mental facility," Vance responds, defending his location. "It's not a prison-reform facility. But if I get a homeless shelter there, it'll be all of those things."
Regardless of locals' complaints, the county remains steadfast in its plan. In December 2013, OC Community Services authored and submitted the "Shelter Cost Model Report" to the Board of Supervisors, recommending the creation of year-round homeless shelters with "multi-service centers," one-stop shops for support such as mental-health counseling. The report lists existing multi-service centers across the country as examples. To ensure safety, county public information manager Jean Pasco says, local law enforcement, transportation services and security cameras will be put in place.
Spitzer recently announced to the Board of Supervisors that he will deploy resources for the homeless at Santa Ana's Civic Center and end the Health Care Agency's (HCA) former approach of leaving them to mental-health nurses. The first sight of progress? A newly mounted HCA-operated tent in front of the center.
Curtis Gamble, a veteran who has been homeless for six years as well as an activist, has been following the county's plan. At the closing of the community forum, he argues that the shelter meets all of the legal requirements. "The location is 4 miles to La Palma Park, where all the homeless people are coming from, and a block or two down is a social service agency where the homeless go anyway," he says. "It's also secluded. The freeway divides it from the rest of the community. As you enter it, you will see there are walls on each side–and no residents."
Holding her hand in the air since the event began is Eileen Pheland, a woman who has been homeless for 20 years, during which time she authored the book The Brighter Side of Homelessness. She is only able to speak for a couple of minutes. "The meeting was about something for us–a homeless shelter–but it sounded like it was against the homeless," she says after the event ends. "They don't want to hear anything realistic from a homeless person like me–anything that's actually going to help."