‘We changed history today’: Supervisors approve permanent homeless shelter in Anaheim

SANTA ANA – Orange County is getting a year-round homeless shelter, signaling a potential shift in how local leaders combat homelessness.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously authorized a warehouse near the 91 freeway in Anaheim to be transformed into a 200-bed shelter that will include a service center aimed at helping people find permanent housing and employment. The vote pleased homeless advocates and frustrated business owners near the proposed site.

It’ll be the first countywide shelter in Orange County, and it comes after decades of discussion and failed plans.

“If we do it here and we do it right and we dispel all the myths, we can do this and we can solve the homeless problem in our county,” said board Chairman Todd Spitzer.

Karen Roper, director of OC Community Services, held back tears as she hugged Spitzer and other shelter supporters after the meeting.

“We changed history today in Orange County,” she said.

Roper estimated the shelter could open by the end of 2016. The county still must select an operator, then construction will begin.

Paul Leon, president of the Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit that provides housing and health care services to the homeless in Orange County, called the shelter “a slight victory.”

“For us, it’s a wait and see,” Leon said. “A shelter is just a holding place for the homeless. (The supervisors) really have to do more.”

Supporters hope the shelter will be the first of several that will be located throughout the county.

The 200 beds will be available by reservation only, and shuttles will transport people to and from the shelter for jobs and appointments. The goal for the average stay is 30 days, with a maximum stay of six months, and supporters say the 200 beds could eventually help thousands of people get off the streets.

About 15,300 people will experience homelessness at least one night over the course of this year, according to Orange County Commission to End Homelessness.

“It’s like a drop in the bucket, but the point is, we’ve got to start somewhere,” said Karen Stoyanoff, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Anaheim and a member of Anaheim’s Poverty Task Force.

County officials want to develop a shelter system that can replace two seasonal shelters that operate out of armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana, which open Nov. 30.

In addition to finalizing the shelter plan, the 5-0 vote authorizes county officials to finalize the $4.25 million purchase of 24,390-square-foot warehouse on 1.87 acres at 1000 N. Kraemer Place. The cities of Fullerton and Anaheim are contributing $500,000 each. The land currently is owned by the Hiji Bros ranching empire in Oxnard.

The approval by supervisors followed 3 1/2 hours of testimony from about 75 people. Leaders from the cities of Anaheim, Brea, Cypress, Fullerton, La Habra, Orange and Placentia spoke in favor, as did current and former homeless people and many representatives of the Catholic Church, which organized a prayer vigil before the meeting as a show of support.

“If we don’t start taking care of the most vulnerable on the streets, they will die,” said Larry Haynes, executive director of the Mercy House, which operates the emergency shelters at the armories. “We have an opportunity to make history today.”

Others are staunchly opposed.

“At this point, none of us are convinced that this whole process is not rigged,” said Joan Vance, who owns a piano store with her husband, Chris Vance, that’s located next to the shelter site. The Vances and other surrounding business owners and neighbors have tried for months to stop the shelter, which they believe will lead to safety problems and decreased property values.

April Allegro warned supervisors that their vote “is an important one for you and your political futures.”

“We will not disappear after this vote,” Allegro said.

But Spitzer said he already knows his support for the shelter could cost him voters.

“This is just one of those votes you have to cast irrespective of the consequences, because it matters for humanity,” Spitzer said.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson noted that he used to live three doors away from the Fullerton armory. He never felt the need to call police, and the value of his property didn’t drop.

But, he said, “I appreciate the false fear.”

Supervisors last year rejected buying a site on East Normandy Place in Santa Ana amid outcry from residents. The Fullerton City Council earlier had refused to allow a 200-bed shelter to open in a closed furniture store in the city.

Roper said the support shown on Tuesday was overwhelming and in stark contrast to prior proposals, which were met with widespread opposition and little organized support.

“I don’t even have words to describe how heartwarming it is,” Roper said.

Staff writer Theresa Walker contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: mcuniff@ocregister.com. Twitter: @meghanncuniff.

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