The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will once again take on the issue of where to build a large, year-round emergency shelter for the homeless – something the county still does not have despite past attempts to build one.
One of the greatest barriers to building a shelter may be the county's residents: The “Not in My Backyard” quarrel has left Orange County without a significant emergency homeless shelter operating year-round, all day and open to anyone.
Yet building a permanent shelter has been part of Orange County’s 10-year plan to end homelessness in response to a federal initiative to tackle the issue.
Two site locations, within the cities of Fullerton and Santa Ana, were picked in past years, but city leaders and residents opposed building shelters in their neighborhoods. Some worried about school children nearby; others said the area was too dangerous and dense.
"Community opposition effectively killed the two projects because the community put pressure on the city council," said Karen Roper, director of Orange County Community Services Department.
Because the county has had a hard time finding a location for the shelter, the county’s private-public Commission to End Homelessness is recommending that supervisors on Tuesday vote to first look for a private, nonprofit provider to run the shelter before choosing a location.
"At the time, there hadn't been a pre-selected, nonprofit operator that could say, 'I will be the operator. This is how I will address this particular issue. You don't have to worry about that,'" Roper said.
Roper, who sits on the county's Commission To End Homelessness but is a non-voting member, suggested that the future operator could develop a resident advisory board to create greater community buy-in.
Roper said there’s no guarantee that NIMBY complaints won’t surface. But a nonprofit homeless services provider with experience running shelters has a good chance to make a solid case to the public.
"There is just a lot of fear and anger associated with the unknown," she said. "But it might help to make it easier in terms of community dialogue and working with a local city."
O.C. supervisors on Tuesday may decide to have private providers find sites for a shelter on their own and pitch projects to the board. Or they may decide to build smaller emergency shelters scattered across the county.
Whatever the decision, Haynes said he hopes the county will at least maintain the same number of emergency homeless beds available now.
Although there are emergency homeless shelters in Orange County, none of them are as large as the two seasonal shelters at the Army National Guard armories, run by the nonprofit Mercy House and contracted by the county.
Plans to build a year-round emergency homeless shelter would replace these seasonal ones.
“The reason we need a shelter is, on a most basic level, every year we have people die on the streets,” said Larry Haynes, executive director for Mercy House.
Both seasonal shelters sleep 200 people each but are only open during the cold weather months, from November to April, depending on funding.
The Armory shelters are also closed during the day. Shelter staff and the homeless can’t get in until 6 p.m. and must be out every day by 6 a.m.
Haynes said a mobile emergency shelter can provide for immediate needs like food and showers, but it can't give staff much time or stability to offer case management and permanent housing solutions to the homeless.
“Think of this as an entry point,” he said. “We need a year-round shelter so we can engage people in a more comprehensive way, in a more compassionate way, in a more thoughtful way, to get them off the streets.”