Residents in Distress Over Plans to Expand SOS Medical Clinic

Times Staff writer

A poster-size enlargement of a $24,475.15 check adorns an office wall inside the modest Share Our Selves free medical clinic in Costa Mesa.

That's how much it will cost to add three examination rooms to accommodate 10 additional prenatal patients a week. The check is a neighborly gesture from the March of Dimes, which, along with SOS, is one of several social service organizations at the Rea Community Center at Hamilton Street and Meyer Place on the west side of the city.

However, now that SOS has asked for city permission to expand the clinic, many residents have come forward claiming that services at the community center attract "undesirables" to their neighborhood.

Food, Clothing Provided

Along with the medical clinic, SOS operates an emergency services program that provides food and clothing to the needy. Residents say some of SOS's clientele sleep, drink and urinate on center grounds, at an adjacent park, and even on their lawns.

"Many (homeless) are out there drinking, fighting, screaming and yelling," said Kim Murphy, who lives across from the center on Knowell Place. "One night they were out there playing jazz music, which was fine, they sounded great, but it was about 10:30 at night."

A public hearing tonight before the City Council on the SOS expansion is likely to be packed. At least 100 residents are expected to oppose the expansion. SOS's backers include the local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, the Costa Mesa Junior League and several churches and temples.

However, Mayor Donn Hall said he plans to recommend that the council postpone the hearing and form a committee to examine problems in the neighborhood.

The proposed expansion "has brought the whole thing to bear . . . but we need to separate the issues," Hall said, noting that the transient problem has become the issue, rather than SOS's proposal to expand.

The coucil "has received an increasing number of complaints from residents about the intrusion on their privacy," Hall said. "It's not necessarily all SOS, there are some other activities that take place there. We have to find out exactly how many people these (social service) places are seeing."

SOS's request to expand the clinic by 300 square feet was approved by the Planning Commission on a 4-1 vote Sept. 12. During that meeting, a few residents expressed frustration about the hundreds of needy and homeless who walk through their neighborhood to get to the center.

Complaints earlier this year prompted police to begin strictly enforcing an ordinance that prohibits people from staying in city parks after midnight. Police have conducted sweeps of the homeless at Rea Community Center, citing those found sleeping on the center's outdoor benches or in the park.

Flyer Circulated

Residents last week held two community meetings and distributed flyers reading: "Save Our Selves from Share Our Selves."

The flyer asks if residents are opposed to "intolerable impacts that are being imported into our neighborhood by the SOS welfare operations at Rea Center" and if they will join other neighbors in asking the city to "get rid of this fiasco."

"I can understand they don't have a very pretty view," said Jean Forbath, director of SOS.

However, she noted that SOS is not the only social service organization in the community center. Other groups include a senior citizen day care center, a soup kitchen, a boys and girls club and High Hopes, which serves brain-damage victims.

"I in no way want to characterize this neighborhood as prejudiced or bigoted at all," Forbath said. "They're trying to protect their environment, but it's not as if we've just invaded."

Forbath and her husband, Frank, formed the nonprofit organization in the city 18 years ago and the program has been located at the Rea center since the city took over a junior high school eight years ago and decided to allow social service organizations to operate there.

Residents said the influx of transients has occurred within the past year.

"It has gotten out of hand," said Murphy, who has lived across from the center for three years. "It's not the clinic, just the people living in between the buildings. I wish they could do something about it. They sleep underneath the awnings. Maybe they could put up a fence with a gate and lock it up so no one can get in there."

Forbath said that in the past four years, SOS has served the same number of people--about 5,000 families or 20,000 individuals a month. Although the number of people SOS serves has not increased, she said, the number of homeless has.

Costa Mesa Police Officer Garth Wilson, who has patrolled the area for nine years, said officers too have noticed a growing number of transients in the city. "In the past we didn't have a lot of regulars, but recently we've gotten a marked increase in new regulars."

Costa Mesa is an inviting city because of the social services available, Wilson said. He also said that some homeless have been driven out of other cities, such as Santa Ana, where city crews have confiscated bedrolls.

Last Friday, Wilson and two other officers were called to the Rea center by a resident who complained about a transient named Greg who was yelling to himself in the park. Greg is a regular.

"He really doesn't constitute a danger to himself or the public," Wilson said. "We talked to him and he said he would go to the middle of the field and talk to himself so he wouldn't disturb anybody else. He's very docile. . . . He's not breaking law one."

Forbath said she is willing to discuss with residents ways to curb the transient problem, aside from moving the center completely.

However, Hall said the council will discuss the possibility of relocating some of the community center's services to a non-residential area.

"Maybe we can relocate it to a more appropriate location, or maybe we can limit the hours," Hall said.

Currently, the SOS food and clothing program is open daily from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. The clinic operates early in the morning and some evenings.

"The people don't bother me too much," said Giovanni Caturano, who lives on Meyer Place. "But they come here at 5:30 or 6 in the morning and the people wait in line. Then the people driving by stop and look, and the cars zoom by my house."

Caturano said he believes that the services provided at the center are valuable. He suggested that the SOS office be moved to the back of the center, away from the street.

"It's not a very pretty sight sometimes," Costa Mesa Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle said. "The residents may feel threatened by people who maybe aren't so clean. There might be something the city can do to make the presence more palatable."

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