It’s been nearly two years since Lorri and Michael Galloway invited a group of residents to a meeting to talk about the Eli Home, a shelter for abused women and children that the couple were planning to open in this largely affluent part of the city.
Instead of a polite session of questions and answers, the evening quickly grew heated and dozens of the neighbors left livid, vowing to fight the plans.
It was merely a snapshot of things to come.
Since that initial standoff in the fall of 1993, a ferocious battle between the Galloways and their neighbors has erupted and continues to rage in this upscale community, where homes sell for up to $300,000.
“It’s been a tremendous struggle,” said City Councilman Bob Zemel, a staunch Eli Home supporter and former member of the organization’s advisory board. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The fighting between the two parties has resulted in a lawsuit filed by the Eli Home against some of the residents, a loss in donations for the much-honored charity, and an ongoing state investigation into the operations of Eli Home Inc., which provides emergency shelter and counseling for women and children at three satellite facilities; the Anaheim Hills location would be its main office and shelter.
There have also been heated City Council meetings and thousands of dollars spent on private investigators and attorneys as tempers continue to flare and accusations fly.
“We were absolutely shocked at the animosity,” Lorri Galloway said last week. “We immediately began dodging bullets and we’ve been dodging them ever since. They let us know they weren’t going to make it easy.”
Resident Gene Secrest, who lives across the street from the shelter, has spearheaded the fight against the home, which he and several of his neighbors feel is inappropriate for their neighborhood and a potential safety hazard.
“We’re not going to have the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch in that house,” Secrest said. “We’re going to have 21 people with all sorts of problems.”
Last week, a small group of the neighbors gathered to discuss the situation that has come to dominate many of their lives. They said they are wary of being characterized as “not-in-my-back-yard” types (NIMBYs), saying their concerns and fears about having a shelter in their neighborhood are real. They also have publicly accused the charity of mismanagement and fraud.
“We are very politically incorrect,” said Charmella Secrest, wife of Gene. “We don’t care. We all have children and homes. That’s why we are doing this. It has nothing to do with us being NIMBYs or uppity.”
From the beginning, the neighbors have voiced concerns about traffic and said the shelter is simply logistically impractical for their neighborhood. They have paid for a traffic study and presented their findings to the council.
Many also said that since the people at the shelter will be abused children and mothers, they fear that an angry spouse may attack someone at the shelter or nearby. In addition, they are concerned about the charity’s ability to operate a shelter for up to 22 people in the seven-bedroom shelter.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” Gene Secrest said.
The most committed of the residents have amassed hundreds of documents on the Galloways and their charities, and have combed through the wording in Eli Home brochures and flyers to point out what they say are inconsistencies.
Despite protests from neighbors, the organization won council approval for conditional-use and building permits to renovate a three-story house into a shelter last fall. At several public meetings since, the residents have urged the council to revoke the permits, most often citing financial problems that the Galloways have experienced with their charities, which rely almost entirely on donations.
The Galloways, both 41, insist that they have nothing but the best of intentions as they attempt to transform the dilapidated house into a temporary refuge for mothers and children.
Residents admit that the house had been an eyesore for years and were hoping that someone would knock it down. But no one in the neighborhood attempted to purchase it until after the Galloways put their plans in motion.
The house, which sits on 22 acres of property, was purchased for only $125,000 because of the poor condition of the building, which had been declared “unsafe to occupy” by the city.
The Galloways said the battle with the neighbors has repeatedly delayed its opening, which is now set for the end of the year.
“We just want to get this place open and the families in here,” Michael Galloway said last week, as he took a brief break from working on the renovation. “There’s a lot of people who care about this home and want to get it done.”
The Galloways have had to endure a level of opposition and scrutiny that they had previously been unaccustomed to since they founded Eli Ministries in 1983. That organization went bankrupt in 1986, when the couple incorporated Eli Home Inc., which also offers emergency shelter and counseling to abuse victims.
Over the years, the charity has received a host of awards, including being named a Point of Light by then-President George Bush in 1991 and receiving a Presidential Citation from President Clinton last year.
They also enjoy strong support from some community leaders, including Zemel, Supervisor William G. Steiner, and former California Angels player Rod Carew.
But the Galloway’s charitable efforts have also been fraught with financial and legal difficulties over the years, the couple admit.
“Every nonprofit has those budgetary shortfalls,” Lorri Galloway said. “But we never ran away and reneged on our promises. If the money wasn’t there, we’d say, ‘Can you work with us?’ It would have been easy to give up, but we haven’t.”
The financial troubles have included bankruptcies, lawsuits, Internal Revenue Service liens, problems with paying rent and payroll taxes, disputes with landlords and now, an ongoing state investigation.
Officials with the state attorney general’s office said last week that they are continuing their probe into Eli Home Inc. The investigation was opened in the spring.
“It’s not closed out,” Deputy Atty. Gen. James Cordi said of the investigation. “But I can’t comment on what we are doing.”
In June, Cordi said an investigation by his office centered on allegations that the Galloways had distributed Eli Home literature containing false information and had improperly rented their Huntington Beach condominium to their charity. Investigators found no evidence of wrongdoing, Cordi said.
Lorri Galloway said that an investigator pored over the organization’s financial records, examined all of its leases for various properties, checked client files and interviewed board members and staff therapists.
Cordi said the investigation was initiated after his office received a complaint. He would not say where the complaint originated. But Secrest and other residents, afraid that their concerns about the shelter would get lost among a heavy caseload, said that they personally paid a visit to the state attorney general’s office in Los Angeles recently to urge a reopening of the investigation.
Steiner, an honorary board member of Eli Home, said he remains supportive of the charity and is “distressed” to see its credibility questioned.
“If the attorney general is keeping this open, it will never close,” Steiner said. “There will always be someone with a complaint, whether it is founded or unfounded, when it comes to these types of operations.”
While Galloway said Eli Home can do little about the investigations except cooperate with authorities, the charity did strike back in court this spring after HomeAid, a nonprofit group that builds and renovates shelters for the homeless, withdrew a planned contribution valued at more than $200,000 because of the controversy, their lawsuit alleges.
The Eli Home filed a $19.5-million lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against three neighbors, charging that they are scaring off donors by making false statements about the shelter.
A judge dismissed Eli Home’s complaint against one resident but suits against other defendants are pending.
“I think [the residents] are extremely upset that the city is going to allow [the Eli Home] up there,” said attorney Charles Farano, who represents the Eli Home in the case. “It’s our contention that this emotional drive has caused them do things that are illegal in terms of defamation.”
Steiner said he sees the situation as a classic NIMBY response and compared it to his experiences in the 1960s when he opened 13 similar facilities, mostly for adolescents. Steiner said that each time, he faced the same type of neighborhood opposition as the Eli Home.
“It was mostly fear of the unknown,” the supervisor said.
The neighbors, however, say they are being unfairly characterized. They say that they would like nothing more than for life in their neighborhood to return to normal.
“It’s been very aggravating and stressful,” said resident Jeannie Averill.
Gene Secrest said: “It’s stolen a lot of time, attention and effort from my home and my family. I’ve tried to protect my home and my family from what I see as a business that shouldn’t be a neighbor.”
The residents said their initial concerns about traffic and violence have grown to include a genuine distrust of the Galloways.
Thomas R. Maslin, a private investigator who was hired by the residents to delve into the background of the Galloways and their charities, said that in his opinion, the Galloways and their charities have had their share of problems.
“Everywhere [the Galloways] go, someone ends up being extremely miffed,” Maslin said.
Lorri Galloway denies any improprieties in the operation of the charity, pointing out that she and her husband answer to a board of directors, which must approve all of the charity’s projects and transactions.
Eli Home supporters said what is being lost amid the hostility, is the need for a shelter for children and their mothers.
“The continual delay is the worst part,” said Mike Edmiston, vice president of the Eli Home board of directors. “We are faced with people who need help and there is nowhere for them to get it. Every day, the need increases.”