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El Toro Base Reuse Plans Make Room for Homeless

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An ambitious plan to feed and shelter the homeless by setting aside hundreds of military housing units and dozens of acres at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station has gone virtually ignored amid the vitriolic debate over the base’s possible future as an international airport.

The political largess has not been lost on officials who serve the poor. They know that providing space for the homeless usually brings neighborhood controversy.

“We’ve really been very lucky the focus is on the airport--we sort of got to sneak in,” said Dolores Barrett, Salvation Army social services director.

But officials in Irvine and Lake Forest--the cities closest to the base--say they haven’t heard any gripes, mostly because the bulk of the services for the homeless would be located north of Irvine Boulevard, far from residential areas, and because it’s widely recognized that the services are desperately needed.

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“I don’t know of anyone really complaining about it,” Irvine Mayor Mike Ward said. “There is a need for this type of housing.”

The Orange County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a special meeting next Tuesday at 1 p.m. to choose one of three reuse proposals when the military retires the 4,700-acre base by 1999. Options include a passenger-cargo airport, a cargo general aviation airport, or turning the base over to business, residential and recreational uses and visitor attractions.

But no matter which plan prevails, the following requests--covering more than 60 acres in all--will be included in the base reuse proposal being submitted to the federal government by Dec. 30:

* Thirty acres for the county’s Social Services Agency, which hopes to offer a variety of services, including a shelter similar to Orangewood Children’s Home for abused children, a center for the investigation of child abuse cases, and a facility to treat disturbed children.

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* At least 300 military housing units to be used by organizations specializing in housing for the homeless. The focus would be on helping families regain stability through job training, educational programs and day-care assistance.

* Several dozen units to be sold as low-income housing.

* Use of existing stables for the American Riding Club for the Handicapped, a volunteer-run group that offers a riding therapy program for 40 to 60 mentally and physically challenged children each week and is affiliated with the Special Olympics.

* A job-training center, child-care center, counseling areas and educational facilities.

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* Warehouses to sort and store food and clothing for the homeless and provide working quarters.

* Use of an existing kitchen for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which collects unused food from restaurants, bakeries and hotels to be used for the needy. The kitchen also would be used to train homeless people.

The federal government will review the county’s base reuse proposal as it decides whether to give the base to Orange County.

If approved, the land would be leased free to service providers, who would be responsible for lead paint and asbestos removal and other repairs, officials said.

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The Base Closure and Community Redevelopment and Homeless Assistance Act of 1994 requires local agencies looking to absorb surplus federal land to use a portion of the property to help the homeless.

Several providers of homeless services said Orange County more than met federal requirements by incorporating all 15 applications from social services agencies for space on the El Toro base and in many cases giving groups more than they requested.

“I think they’ve exceeded their responsibility,” said Ken Robertson of Community Housing Assistance Program Inc., an organization that hopes to run 100 homes at the base.

Buddy Ray, executive director of the Orange County Community Development Council Inc., said the county has been exceptionally cooperative.

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“I don’t know if more could have been done, but I do know that considerably less cooperation could have been possible on the part of the county,” said Ray, whose group collected more than 11 million pounds of food last year for the needy and seeks to use warehouse space at the base.

“I only have good things to say about how the county has been working with us on this process,” he added.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 individuals in Orange County are either homeless, have no permanent place to live, or may soon become homeless, according to studies. Orange County now has about 1,100 shelter beds to offer.

Orange County officials estimate that each of the 300 units at the base will be used by an average of three people, or a total of 900 homeless individuals, creating an 82% increase in shelter beds across the county.

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The Salvation Army’s Barrett said she doesn’t believe the county is being especially generous, just practical.

After all, she said, helping the homeless is required by federal law and won’t cost the county.

“I’m sure that’s why they are giving it to us, but we don’t care--we’re happy with it,” Barrett said.

Ward said his city’s only request will be that the military housing be spruced up. An outspoken airport opponent, Ward added that he is concerned that if an airport is developed at El Toro, the county’s poor will be forced to live with unbearable noise.

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Barrett said she doesn’t believe her clients will complain.

“These are people who have lived on the street,” Barrett said. “An airport can’t be any worse than that.”

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Not Just Runways

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Overlooked in the fight over whether an airport belongs at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station are plans to use the retiring military base to provide a variety of services to the homeless and needy. Land and buildings will also be used to consolidate offices of Orange County’s Social Services Agency, for a shelter for neglected children, for job training, education and counseling programs, for office space, and to provide a kitchen area to prepare food for the needy. Here are some of the functions planned for El Toro when the Marines depart:

1. 300 units of existing military housing for 900 people or more--mostly families

2. Existing stables for riding therapy program for handicapped children

3. Day-care center

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