Santa Ana Residents Unite Against Proposed Homeless Shelter

Andrew Galvin

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.

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