In late June, Dora Lopez received a flier in the mail from the city of Santa Ana, letting her know the county government was considering putting a homeless shelter in an industrial area less than a mile from her home.
Lopez figured officials were seeking "opinions" as "a first step" toward deciding where to place such a shelter. But at a July 2 community meeting, she learned Orange County was already in late-stage talks to buy a building near McFadden and Grand avenues.
"There was a knot in my stomach," she remembers. "I was so angry I couldn't even hold my emotions."
She was one of just a handful of neighborhood residents who attended that meeting, which drew mostly county and city staff and people from nonprofits that serve the homeless.
"They were saying about how this was going to enhance our community, how we were so fortunate to be part of this wonderful project to help the less fortunate," Lopez says. "Even the simplest questions–give us the exact address–they couldn't even tell us. It was totally insulting to myself and my husband and the few [members] of the community who were there."
At the meeting, Lopez spoke up: "I'm not a bad person," she said, asking the county and city officials who were leading it, "Do you live here? . . . It's not going to happen in our neighborhood. Put it in the Civic Center."
Finding a location for a homeless shelter is a vexing task for any local government. Neighborhood opposition is automatic; just about everyone says they support helping the homeless, but they don't want a shelter near their home.
Recognizing this, the state Legislature in 2007 crafted a law aimed at neutralizing opposition from NIMBYs, or residents taking a stance of "not in my back yard." Authored by former state Senator (now Los Angeles councilman) Gil Cedillo, Senate Bill 2 requires cities across California to designate zones where shelters can be located "by right"–that is, without requiring further steps that give NIMBYs a chance to pressure elected officials. Cedillo, who earned a reputation as a champion of the working poor and immigrants, wanted to remove obstacles to placing homeless shelters beyond downtown LA's Skid Row.
The SB 2 process is now playing out in Santa Ana, but NIMBYs haven't disappeared. More than 300 people attended an Aug. 19 meeting at which Lopez and other opponents got their message out.
The warehouse where the county plans to open a 200-bed shelter is on East Normandy Place. Close by are densely populated, low-income apartment communities, including Cornerstone Village, Bishop Manor and Cedar Evergreen–home to many immigrant families. Those leading opposition to the shelter come mainly from neighborhoods of single-family homes slightly farther from the site, including Madison Park and Wilshire Square.
Orange County remains one of the largest municipalities in the nation with no year-round public shelter. Since the 1980s, the county has sponsored two cold-weather shelters, which operate from December to April at National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana. The county's goal is to replace the two armories with at least two year-round shelters that would offer on-site health and social services.
Last year, the Santa Ana City Council designated industrial areas within the city as "by right." County officials then chose a location in one of the city-approved zones. The Board of Supervisors, in a 5-0 vote on July 15, approved purchasing the Normandy Place site and the 23,220-square-foot warehouse that sits on it for $3.6 million. The result? A pissed-off neighborhood that feels it was kept in the dark and targeted because its residents are largely Latino and poor.
Lopez and her husband have owned a home in Santa Ana's Madison Park neighborhood for nearly 30 years. For most of that time, she wasn't particularly active in neighborhood affairs. She worked full-time and raised two children, now grown, one of whom suffers from a developmental disability that consumed much of her attention. After she learned of the proposed shelter, Lopez felt compelled to act. "I think it was meant to be," she says. "I thought it was my responsibility to inform people, since our government was not doing that. People had the right to know before it was too late."
On Aug. 19, men in fluorescent yellow vests directed overflow traffic as scores of vehicles descended on Kennedy Elementary School–just a quarter-mile from the shelter site. Lopez was one of about a dozen people who spoke to a crowd packed into the school's outdoor lunch area, sharing her story of the earlier, July 2 meeting, which was held at the same school. "Little did we know the decision had already been made," she told the audience, which included four City Council members and reporters from online, print and broadcast outlets. "It took them 13 days between informing the community and making the decision to put this shelter in our community."
Lack of consultation with the neighborhood has become the rallying cry for Lopez and other opponents, who play down their opposition to being in close proximity to homeless people. "The issue here is a community that has been undermined in their civil rights to know what's going on in our neighborhood," she insists. "My hope was to emphasize the injustices to the community. . . . [It has] nothing to do with the homeless."
Other speakers at the Aug. 19 meeting didn't mince words. Selica Diaz, who manages apartments, complained of homeless people breaking into laundry rooms; using hoses to take showers; and leaving behind needles, condoms and feces. Asked if a shelter might not ease pressure on her laundry rooms, Diaz switched to another of the opponents' arguments, which is that a busy industrial street is no place to warehouse the homeless. "I do understand that they have a need of a place where they can shower," Diaz explains. "But I don't think a warehouse is the place. I think they need a place near a park, so it feels like a home."
The arguments may make no difference. The only entity with the authority to stop the shelter is the same Board of Supervisors that voted unanimously to approve it just last month. None of the supervisors attended the Aug. 19 meeting to listen to opponents. County officials are frustrated after NIBMYs convinced the Fullerton City Council to reject Supervisor Shawn Nelson's initiative to locate a shelter on State College Boulevard last year. Although that city's decision wasn't binding on the county, Orange County officials opted to not proceed with the site, which wasn't zoned for a shelter.
Jose Rea, president of Madison Park's neighborhood association, has said, "If Fullerton stopped it, we can stop it." But Rea, Lopez and their allies face a tougher situation; thanks to SB 2, Santa Ana's city council can't say no to the shelter.