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Nonprofit that aids the homeless exits Costa Mesa

Citing an antagonistic political climate and increasing regulation of the city's motels, a nonprofit serving Orange County's homeless has moved out of Costa Mesa, according to the organization's president.

"We literally couldn't even work there anymore," said Paul Leon, president and chief executive of the Irvine-based Illumination Foundation. "We saw the problem getting worse rather than better."

Leon said the organization plans to expand its work in other cities that have sizable homeless populations, such as Anaheim and Stanton, where city officials have been "more cooperative and understanding."

The Illumination Foundation has had something of a love-hate relationship with Costa Mesa throughout the seven years it has offered services in the city, often disagreeing on how best to tackle homelessness.

"The truth is they were helping a segment of our homeless population," said Rick Francis, the city's assistant chief executive. "It just seemed to conflict with what we were trying to do."

As city leaders took a hard line against "problem motels," which they have said draw more than the city's share of struggling Orange County residents, the foundation placed families hoping to transition out of homelessness and homeless people recovering from hospital stays at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, the city's biggest motel.

Leon said that during its time in Costa Mesa the foundation has helped about 1,500 families, at least about 600 of which are still in stable housing situations.

For the last few years, the foundation has also operated out of rooms in the motel, providing walk-in services for anyone living there — whether or not they were clients, he said.

That, city officials said, was the problem.

When the city conducted a massive code inspection at the Motor Inn in August as part of a series of such sweeps, the motel's operators were notified that having the foundation operate a kind of office within its rooms was a violation of its use permits and could result in fines.

"We were collateral damage," Leon said. "[City leaders] wanted to close down that motel."

He estimated the foundation had about 4,000 interactions with people staying at the motel through the office, where foundation staff members helped connect people to job programs and other services.

But Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer said the foundation was violating the city's code.

"It's not a one-stop shop," he said of the motel. "This is not what this is."

He also stressed that providing such services in a motel could bring homeless people from outside Costa Mesa, making the city "a dumping ground for the county."

Leon said that outlook has been a source of frustration for the foundation — and is in large part why the organization is withdrawing from Costa Mesa.

"Unless you really have a City Council who's going to be forward-thinking and really accept the problem," he said, "the homeless aren't going anywhere."

jill.cowan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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