Orange County spending $3.2 million to create Fullerton homeless shelter

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The Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan Tuesday to spend $3.2 million to acquire a closed Linder's Furniture site in Fullerton to convert into a year-round homeless shelter.

The approval came despite complaints from some neighbors who contend the shelter would increase crime in the area, and Fullerton Mayor Bruce Whitaker's request that the supervisors delay the vote for a few weeks so city officials could discuss the deal.

"I'm here neither to oppose or support this project, but to ask for a brief delay in approval of this," Whitaker said. "Our City Council is behind the curve on this."

Whitaker's predecessor as mayor, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) sent a representative to Tuesday's meeting to support the establishment of a year-round shelter at 301 S. State College Blvd.

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer noted that county officials asked city staffers last month if the shelter would comply with the city's general plan and received an affirmative answer on January 7.

"So somebody in your city deliberated on this issue preliminarily," he told the mayor.

Board Chairman Shawn Nelson said he understood the concerns of neighbors, but he challenged them to suggest alternative sites. He also noted the deal would be in escrow for up to 150 days, so the county can address any concerns during that time.

"The purpose of getting the contract signed is so the owner doesn't change his mind," Nelson said.

Nelson also challenged the assertions of some neighbors that the shelter would increase crime in the area.

"Having lived next door to the (Fullerton) armory for 10 years, there's no crime -- certainly it's not related to the armory -- and anyone who says so is making it up," Nelson said, referring to the shelter that's open only part of the year. "Crime isn't the issue with the armory."

Nelson also pointed out that the Orange County Transportation Authority and Fullerton officials are working a grade-separation project for a rail crossing at the site that would substantially reduce the property's value.

"It's not going to look like it does today," Nelson said of the site's future.

The property will be surrounded by a rail crossing, industrial park and a barrier separating neighbors from the shelter, Nelson said.

"This is our best effort," Nelson said. "We finally have a shot, and I apologize if it falls short of perfection."

Supervisor John Moorlach, chairman of the Commission to End Homelessness, called it an "amazing opportunity," and stressed that the Fullerton shelter would be "the first, but not the only. We were challenged to put one in each (supervisor's) district and I think that's the goal."

He was referring to the board's approval last January of a 10-year plan to end homelessness, which includes the establishment of more than one year-round emergency shelter to replace the seasonal Armory Emergency Shelter programs in the county.

The year-round shelter would also provide services for the homeless to get them off the streets. Moorlach envisions a shelter that includes a food bank and offers various necessities such as clothes for job interviews and medical checkups.

Nelson, in support of the 10-year plan on homelessness, convened the North County Roundtable on Homelessness last February. That effort dovetailed with the work of the Fullerton Task Force on Homelessness, which was formed following the in-custody beating death of schizophrenic transient Kelly Thomas in that city.

Thomas' father praised the year-round shelter plan.

"What I see is a fabulous opportunity to help people," Ron Thomas said. "This is a start. I think places around the nation are going to look at Orange County and see what's happening here as they have and model themselves after what you're doing."

Last spring, Nelson asked roundtable members to submit potential sites for the year-round emergency shelter. Working with Fullerton officials and a local real estate broker, the State College property was identified as the best location, according to county officials.

Getting other cities on board with developing year-round shelters throughout the county is an ongoing battle, Moorlach said.

"We've got to deal with this awkwardness of having the homeless problem, but where do we do this?" Moorlach said. "That's why we need multiple locations ... Santa Ana feels that it's always just them (expected to house a shelter)."

Supervisor Janet Nguyen said she is working with Santa Ana officials on establishing a year-round shelter in that city.

"It's a very sensitive issue," Nguyen said. "The answer (to homelessness) has to come from the county -- it's a regional problem, but it has to be done with the cooperation with the cities."

Some Santa Ana officials feel that a year-round shelter would draw transients from Long Beach and other cities, Moorlach said, adding he doubts that would happen.

Laguna Beach has a shelter for south county, and "has been really good about running it," Moorlach said.

With contributions from Ed Joyce

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