Local Government

Council to Vote On Regulations for Sheltering the Homeless at Religious Institutions

At their November 20th meeting, Fullerton City Council voted 3-2 (Fitzgerald, Chaffee, Sebourn “yes”) on a first reading to approve a new ordinance with added regulations for religious institutions that wish to operate as homeless shelters. This item came back for discussion (and adoption) at the Dec. 4th meeting at 6:30pm at Fullerton City Hall.

At the November 20 meeting, several members of the public and the faith community spoke against the regulations, arguing that they are too restrictive, and would prevent churches like St. Philip Benizi, which allows homeless people to sleep on their grounds, from providing this service.

Under the new regulations, institutions may house up to 12 homeless individuals in “a habitable structure, either permanent or temporary, with access to restrooms and subject to provision of on-site management and security.”

The new regulations also establish a permitting process that would require a religious institution to submit an application to the city providing the following information for review: duration of the shelter, days and hours of operation, processes for admitting persons to the shelter and/or program, any types of supportive services offered, security measures and site supervision.

In August, the Planning Commission recommended that the City Council not adopt the proposed amendment by a vote of 4-2-1.

Jay Williams, executive director of OC United, runs the Interfaith Shelter Network, which currently includes four churches that house eight homeless people for a limited duration, as these people look for jobs and try to get back on their feet.

“We’re okay with the proposal at hand. But I also want to say this issue is complicated and there’s no one solution that’s going to be the answer. We need multiple solutions” said Williams.

Father Dennis Kriz, pastor at St. Philip Benizi church, said, “I’m surprised that this came up at all because it was decisively defeated by the Planning Commission…I don’t think this ordinance will change much of anything except make it harder for solutions to be made…Currently the people sleeping on our property at St. Philip Benizi are there…because, frankly, there is no place for them to go.”

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Long-time homeless advocate Barbara Johnson asks the council not to approve the new ordinance. Photo Jane Rands.

Barbara Johnson, co-founder of FIES (now Pathways of Hope) and the Interfaith Shelter Network, said, “As we celebrate over 30 years of success for ISN, I do not see the need for adopting any restrictive code amendments. We do not need to fix something that is not broken. I ask the council to leave it alone as the planning commission voted to do.”

Richard Doubleday, a Deacon at St Philip Benizi, said, “We are in an emergency situation…We have a short-term dilemma that’s not going away. Jay’s work with 8 people is wonderful, but what about the 233 people who are unsheltered?…I view new ordinances as a restriction on our right as a Christian community to perform our obligation…We don’t turn people away because we’ve got a law that says they can’t be here.”

Diana Trout, a Fullerton resident and a parishioner of St. Philip Benizi, who helps run the summer Vacation Bible School program for kids, urged council to vote against the regulations.

“If we, as a Catholic Church, want to step up to the plate, these amendments will only tie our hands,” said Trout.

David Gillanders, executive director of Pathways of Hope echoed the idea that we are at a point of crisis, and that these regulations could be limiting for churches.

“I am concerned about the potential of limiting some of our faith friends like St. Philip Benizi, which has so far [created] a fairly successful and morally just program to help our friends who are sleeping outside,” said Gillanders.

Brooke Weitzman, the plaintiff ’s lawyer in the OC Catholic Worker lawsuit which is driving a lot of the recent push to provide homeless shelters countywide, also argued against the new regulations.

“What I see in Fullerton is a community that wants solutions, a community that’s come together to say that this ordinance is not well-thought out, that you didn’t consult the churches, that you didn’t consult the non-profits, and that the way in which it’s written is going to do more harm than good for the Fullerton homeless,” said Weitzman, “If churches are taking it upon themselves to step in and fill some of that gap, it really seems like it would be in the city’s best interest to turn to those churches and ask what type of support can we provide, rather than implementing something that’s going to limit the programs that are already in place.”

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Father Dennis Kriz, pastor of St. Philip Benizi Church in Fullerton with Robert, a

homeless man who sleeps on the grounds of the church at night. Photo Jesse La Tour.

Cynthia Sanchez, director of organizing for the Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO), a faith-based group working on issues of equity, social justice, and economic dignity said, “I feel churches like St. Philip Benizi model something that the city and the county need to be doing, which is reaching out a helping hand. Congregations should not be discouraged from doing that, but actually supported and motivated to continue the work, while the city and the county are doing active steps to fund permanent supportive housing.”

Mike Clements, a 32-year resident of Fullerton and a leader at St. Juliana’s church, said, “When a congregation steps up to respond to a city-wide crisis to assist the homeless in Fullerton, we don’t need obstacles, we don’t need bureaucracy, we don’t need roadblocks, and we don’t need small thinking.”

Laura Karachi, a parishioner who lives just a few blocks from St. Philip Benizi, said, “I’m at the church several nights a week, and have seen no incidences with the homeless who sleep there…I ask you to vote against any municipal codes that would restrict this effort. It’s just a drop in a big ocean. But please, let it exist, and continue, and grow.”

“Until there is a sufficient network of services and appropriate housing for people who are homeless provided by our cities, county, and regions, please do not diminish and make more difficult what our city churches are now successfully doing and have done for years by passing these amendments,” said Diane Vena.

Harry Langenbacher called the new regulations “an unfunded mandate for [churches] to do more than they are able to do.” He suggested that the city help interested churches implement the new requirements.

Although the vast majority of speakers were against the proposed ordinance, several residents were for some restrictions.

Anita Adriano said that there are many within the neighborhood who are opposed to what St. Philips’s has been doing—allowing homeless people to sleep on their grounds overnight. “I urge our churches to continue to provide appropriate shelter, even St. Philips to provide appropriate shelter,” she said.

The father of a girl who earlier this year was traumatized when a homeless man entered her home near EV Free church, said that a high percentage of calls to the police are homeless-related. He said, “I think we should definitely help the homeless” but added that “I’m going to do what I can to protect my family. I want to do what I can to protect my community. We need to take positive steps in that direction.”

A Safe Homeless Parking Program?

Several parishioners of St. Philip Benizi church, along with regional homeless advocates, argued against the new regulations and advocated for a “safe parking” program, which would allow people living in their cars to safely park on church lots overnight, without fear of tickets or towing.

An employee of the Illumination Foundation, a homeless services non-profit in Orange County, described the “safe parking” program they are considering at St. Philips—which would provide a safe place for 20 people living in their vehicles to park overnight—this program would provide access to restrooms, security, and case management.

People living in their cars, one of the fastest-growing demographics of homelessness, often consist of families, the elderly, and the working poor.

Many cities in California have already successfully created “safe parking” programs, including Santa Barbara, San Diego, Santa Rosa, and Los Angeles.

Jessica Concho, 24-year resident of Fullerton, said, “I’m here to advocate for my friends, my co-workers, classmates who have lived in their cars and received food benefits because the rent is too high. Fullerton needs to lead the way by supporting this safe parking proposal so we can help rehabilitate the homeless children, mothers, fathers, students, unemployed, veterans, and more.”

A 32-year resident of Fullerton, and an outreach coordinator for St. Vincent De Paul (catholic charity) at St. Juliana’s parish, spoke in favor of the “safe parking” program: “I have assisted many women with children living in cars. Most of these women were working.”

City Manager Ken Domer said that the new regulations do not address a “safe parking” program. “We’re more than happy to work with St. Philips on the safe parking,” said Domer, “That’s a program that is best brought back through a conditional use permit.”

Council Weighs In

Councilmember Fitzgerald, who voted for the new regulations, said “we need to do whatever we can to take care of all our neighbors, and that includes the people who are not homeless, who have homes in our city. What you are doing on your church property is not permitted in the city of Fullerton,” she said to Father Dennis Kriz and the folks from St. Philip Benizi church.

Mayor Chaffee, who voted for the new regulations, said, “There’s a community around there [St. Phillip Benizi], I’ve heard from them, and they are opposed. It’s unfortunate.”

Mayor Protem Sebourn, who voted for the regulations, said, “I don’t necessarily have a problem with this. I think it’s something that certainly the residents would like to see implemented as just an opportunity for some checks and balances.”

Councilmember Silva, who voted against the ordinance, said he wanted more information about how the city would implement the new regulations.

“I don’t want to restrict some of these churches trying to alleviate some of these people from sleeping outside,” said Silva, “I want to see if we can work with them without putting out these restrictions, and see if they can accomplish what we want them to accomplish—provide security, to have restrooms for them, to see if we can get some on-site management out there to connect these people to services.”

Councilmember Whitaker, who voted against the regulations, commended the churches for their compassion, and the ability “to fill the breach of a problem that’s been relatively unmanageable in the city.” He agreed with Councilmember Silva to continue the item to a later date, to get more information.

Councilmember Silva suggested continuing the item “until we have the funding sources available to help the churches to do this, because if we can’t help them, and they can’t fund this, then we’re impeding them.”

Response from City Manager Ken Domer

Since publication of this article yesterday, Fullerton City Manger Ken Domer responded with the following statement, clarifying the city’s position:

The proposal to amend the definition of Emergency Shelter for Homeless (Religious Institution) is to begin the process of building an ability for the City, non-profit, and faith-based organizations to better focus on assisting people get off the streets, get assessed for proper services, and ultimately get placed into proper housing.  Unfortunately, many of the speakers believed that the proposed changes prevented St. Philip Benizi from establishing a program with the Illumination Foundation which primarily serves the homeless community who have vehicles.  That is not the case as currently that style of program is not allowed and would not be effected by the ordinance amendment.  The City is willing to work with the St. Philip Benizi on such a program but the program is one best run through the Conditional Use Permit process to allow public input from neighbors, and meetings are being set up to do just that.

The changes proposed by the City seek to ensure that homeless persons are provided reasonable and decent shelter, within a structure, and with access to restrooms.  While we know not all religious institutions can support such sheltering, no church in Fullerton is currently offering ongoing overnight sheltering services other than allowing homeless persons to sleep on their property.  In order to assist a person to get off the streets, the goal is to get their information and specific needs so that the appropriate non-profit, faith-based organization, or County agency can work with them to address physical or mental health needs.  When provided proper overnight accommodations, to include access to restrooms, a person can then move to a permanent shelter or affordable housing opportunities when there is an opening.

Most importantly, the City will begin to receive dedicated homeless assistance funds through SB 2 Funds in which we can partner with non-profit and faith-based organizations on specific programs or improvements.  The goal is to get 3-5 sites that can serve as first step, off the street shelters that provide safe and decent facilities, a management plan to get the individual into a higher level housing option, and a security plan so that the clients, staff, and neighbors all feel safe with the program.

The ordinance, which is simple change to definitions in the zoning code, is a first step as we have to have a foundation in which to build a successful program.

 

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