Death of Kelly Thomas spurs efforts to bolster homeless services in Orange County

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Trial is scheduled to start Monday for two ex-Fullerton police officers charged in the high-profile beating death a mentally ill homeless man.

Kelly Thomas, 37, had been a longtime fixture on the streets of Fullerton. His death in July 2011 shook the town and touched off a wave of soul-searching on how the city of 135,000 deals with homelessness.

The city council appointed a 17-member task force to try and make sense of the incident. 

"The task force was part of that community response of saying, 'this kid shouldn't die on our streets and what could we have done that would have prevented this,'" task force leader Rusty Kennedy said.  

Kelly Thomas died five days after an altercation with police officers outside the Fullerton Transportation Center. A video of the incident shows officers beating Thomas while he was on the ground. Thomas was a diagnosed schizophrenic and had had numerous runs-in with police.

Kennedy said all Fullerton police department employees are now given comprehensive training on working with the homeless, particularly those who are mentally ill.

"It was a statement saying we need to do a better job as a police department, as a city in training and preparing our professionals to deal with a situation like this without people dying on our streets that shouldn't have," Kennedy said.

The father of Kelly Thomas, Ron Thomas, was also on the task force.  

“Kelly’s death was an eye-opener for so many people, not only here in Southern California but around the nation, different departments changing policies and procedures and hopefully a more humane approach," he said. 

Thomas said the training has paid off in the two years since his son's death. 

“I’ve seen positive changes even in the attitudes of the homeless towards law enforcement is very positive and the other way around – law enforcement has a much better and positive attitude towards homeless folks,” Thomas said. 

Maria Mazzenga Avellaneda is the executive director for Pathways of Hope in Fullerton, a nonprofit which provides food and other services to the homeless. She said cooperation has improved between police and the homeless.  

"We have seen the police become more active in assisting the Homeless Collaborative and administering our motel voucher allotment, assisting individuals directly with transportation, site clean-up, and mediation," Mazzenga Avellaneda said. 

Joe Felz is Fullerton’s City Manager. He started the job in May 2011, two months before Thomas' death. 

"I think that the approach we took was to hear people, make change and make a commitment that we were going to act in a quick fashion to address concerns that were there with our police department and we feel that's occurred and is still occurring," Felz said. "And then a lot of effort, particularly on the focus on the homelessness issue, has been focused and positive." 

A survey earlier this year showed there were almost 4,300 homeless people in Orange County on any given night. Of those, 480 homeless people were severely mentally ill, with the vast majority living on the streets. 

Ron Thomas said nonprofits serving the homeless in Fullerton have increased their efforts over the past two years.

Rusty Kennedy agreed, citing faith-based organizations and nonprofit groups that provide food, clothing, temporary and transitional housing.  

"That's not to say we don't have a need, we do. We're not meeting the need," said Kennedy.

And Ron Thomas added that one of those needs — a task force recommendation — remains unfulfilled: a year-round, multi-services homeless shelter. 

“That was huge issue for us on the task force committee was to get this homeless shelter,” Thomas said.  

Orange County supervisors proposed turning a former furniture store in Fullerton into a multi-services shelter and approved $3.2 million for it.

But some neighborhood residents voiced concerns about crime and the shelter being too close to a school. 

Thomas said there also was talk about imposing restrictions for people using the shelter.

“Not allowing them on sidewalks, they can’t walk down the street. And I hate that term “they” because we’re all people, we all have rights," Thomas said. "And Fullerton hasn’t overcome that. They haven’t overcome the civil rights of the homeless people as just being citizens.” 

In a 3-to-2 vote, the Fullerton City Council rejected using the old furniture store as a homeless shelter.  

"People were in support of the need for a shelter even if they didn't support this particular location," Fullerton City Manager Felz said. "This was a good example of government response, despite the result."

Fullerton is the home of the county's temporary winter shelter at the National Guard Armory.

Permanent supportive housing for mentally-ill homeless

Another task force recommendation is for permanent, supportive housing for the mentally ill homeless. Kennedy said proposals are currently under consideration in Fullerton and other cities.

"That would be more specifically something that might have been able to hook in a Kelly Thomas, and put them in a structured setting where they would have on-site services, to help them stay on their meds to deal with their mental illness, and to be there for them when they really need it," Kennedy said.

Kennedy also said, in the immediate aftermath of Thomas' death, Fullerton had what he called a type of "convulsion" or upheaval.

"The city as the responsible party, the police department as directly involved, to parents of the mentally ill concerned about our children, to long-term residents concerned about our streets and to advocates for the homeless," said Kennedy. 

Kennedy said a recall election brought in new council members, officers involved in the Thomas beating were fired and Fullerton implemented many of the the task force recommendations. 

He called the recall and other changes a "restart" for the city. 

Kennedy said there is still more to do, but throughout Orange County, significant progress has  been made toward improving homeless services since the beating of Kelly Thomas.

"You can't underestimate the horror and tragedy that has happened. At the same time, we couldn't also just say, that's the end of it. We're compelled to do something to make it better," Kennedy said.

Meantime, Ron Thomas is steeling himself for the upcoming criminal trial for two of the police officers charged in connection with his son's death.

"I've got a mission here, I've got to get justice for Kelly," Ron Thomas said. "So I need to not think about the pain, the suffering, the horror he went through all the time, I need to think on what do I need to do to get him justice."

The trial of ex-Fullerton police officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli is expected to last until late January. 

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