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In fighting homeless camp, Irvine's Asians win, but at a cost

In fighting homeless camp, Irvine's Asians win, but at a cost
Protests over homeless shelter in Irvine. (Los Angeles Times)

One by one, the buses pulled up to the Orange County Hall of Administration last week carrying posters with messages such as "No Tent City" and "No Homeless in Irvine."

Many of the hundreds on board were immigrants, and this would be their first experience joining a political protest.

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A week earlier, county officials announced that they were considering placing emergency homeless shelters in Irvine as well as in Laguna Niguel and in Huntington Beach. All three cities immediately fought the plan, but the opposition was most fierce in Irvine.

Many of the loudest voices in the movement to block the shelter plan were Chinese Americans who came together through social media apps and various community groups. They were joined by immigrants from South Korea, India, Mexico and the Middle East, along with some whites.

They rallied to protect their community from what they see as the ills of homeless camps, which many argued don't belong in their famously clean, safe, family-oriented planned community. Their protests helped persuade the Orange County Board of Supervisors to overturn the shelter proposal, leaving the county without a homeless plan at a time when the population is growing and officials are shutting down tent cities along the Santa Ana River.

It was a big political victory for the diverse opposition from Irvine. But it also came at a price, with some accusing the residents of intolerance and simply wanting to keep the homeless out of their own cities without offering an alternative solution.

Homeless camp along the Santa Ana River.
Homeless camp along the Santa Ana River. (Los Angeles Times)

Where will homeless go?

Orange County is now struggling to figure out what to do.

Many of the homeless people who were moved from the Santa Ana River trail are staying in motels, but the last of the remaining vouchers handed out to them have started expiring. No one is sure where they will go next. Homeless advocates have sued the county to stop the camp evictions, and a federal judge has demanded the county do whatever it takes to find more shelter space.

While homelessness is a regional problem, it was a very local one to the Irvine residents.

Most protesters arrived in 24 buses chartered from Southern California travel agencies, the culmination of eight days of organizing in Irvine by residents.

"Did you see how we created a presence to keep our neighborhoods safe? Look at those crowds! It was like Chinese New Year," said Kelvin Hsieh, manager of a high-tech company who signed up to ride the bus and marched with his daughter, fifth-grader Ava.

Like Hsieh and others on the buses, Haiying Snider, a fashion designer, said she has "never engaged in political issues" but felt motivated to get involved in this fight because it felt so close to home.

Chunzhu Yu, a dentist with offices in Irvine and Orange, said he paid about $5,000 to sponsor seven buses, taking half a day off from seeing patients to air his views.

"We had to go to defense mode to keep trouble away," Yu said.

WeIrvine, a Chinese internet services company with about 40,000 members, used its social media platform to spread the word about the plan to locate one of the emergency shelters in Irvine.

Organizing though social media

WeIrvine co-founder Guoqing Wu stepped up to cover five buses and volunteered the group's time to help share information via WeChat, a Chinese messaging app connecting thousands of households in Irvine.

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"We didn't do it alone," said fellow co-founder Richard Xiaoxiang Lu. "No one knows the county officials, and most of us have never been to their meetings. But we had people from every community say, 'I need to go there' to speak up. Asians are usually quiet, you know. Not this time."

Parrisa Yazdani, an Irvine mother of two of Japanese and Iranian descent, launched a Facebook page called "Irvine Tent City Protest" that ballooned to more than 5,000 members in a few days.

"People who I never knew were calling me night and day and asking to do whatever they could to help. It's really proof that we are a community dedicated to a mission, like never before," she said, partnering with Lu and Wu to navigate the flow of information.

Irvine's demographics
Irvine's demographics (Los Angeles Times)

An affluent, booming city

Irvine is an affluent, fast-growing and ethnically diverse city, so it's no surprise that the protesters would be diverse as well. Asians make up 45.7% of Irvine's 258,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, while whites and Latinos make up 38.2% and 7%, respectively. Among its residents, 65% are college graduates. Irvine boasts a median home value of $740,000.

The residents rejected the idea that they are being elitist, arguing that they were simply trying to protect their city — and their families.

"All of us came here and stayed here for one reason — family. No tent city — that's our message. Irvine never said, 'no homeless people,'" Yazdani said.

"I'm not closed-minded," added Alex Lu, a pharmaceutical scientist from Irvine. "I want to listen to all sides, and when I went to the protest I tried talking to the homeless advocates. We really welcome hearing about what they need."

"Yes, we totally welcome discussion," added accountant Spring Chen, who participated in the protest along with her 69-year-old mother, who brought two friends, ages 76 and 82. "This is tax season — my busiest season of the year — but I haven't worked for days because I could not ignore this."

Joe Yan, a WeChat community leader, paid for two buses and said that part of the reason Irvine succeeded is because its master-planned communities allow easy connection between "one village to another."

Suresh Paulraj, an Indian American resident of Cypress Village, described the organization style as "precise, almost like the military. We can learn from this to help us activate in the future."

Suburban tracts of Irvine.
Suburban tracts of Irvine. (Los Angeles Times)

A regional problem, local politics

Officials in Santa Ana, where homeless camps have overwhelmed the Civic Center area, have argued that other communities need to help share the burden. Irvine is now the third-largest city in Orange County, behind Anaheim and Santa Ana. The sweeps of homeless camps along the Santa Ana River began after complaints of filth and crime by residents in the nearby cities of Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fountain Valley.

Lili Graham, a homeless advocate and litigation director for the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, described the Irvine effort as "amazing" but misguided. The proposed shelter site in the city had already been zoned "and determined to be appropriate for emergency shelters," she said.

"It was a loud group, but in a county of 3 million, it's one group. There was a lot of leadership there — and there needs to be a lot of leadership on the county level to solve this issue," she said.

But some Irvine residents said the solution should not include their city.

"They need to put them somewhere, maybe somewhere else in California," resident Angela Liu, who owns a legal services company, told the Board of Supervisors. "I really don't know where they can go. But Irvine is beautiful, and we don't want it to get destroyed."

Her view was far from isolated. Officials and residents in Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel expressed similar sentiments. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) said he joined "the outrage that we are assuming responsibility for homeless people, taking care of their basic needs and elongating their agony."

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‘We have compassion’

The emergency shelter plan was designed to provide more services to the homeless who were being evicted from the river camps. Under the aborted proposal, people would be sent first to a site in Irvine, which would have a capacity of 200, then to Huntington Beach, which would have a capacity of 100. If more shelter was necessary, they would be taken to property near City Hall in Laguna Niguel, which could serve up to 100. The sites would be used only after current county shelters reached capacity, with housing in tent-like structures.

It's still possible that Irvine could host more homeless services.

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner and Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer announced Wednesday that they are partnering to push fast-track opportunities to build permanent housing for women and veterans in the city. This proposal stirred the curiosity of protesters, who said they would wait for more details to be released after officials do more research.

"We have compassion, don't doubt it," Alex Lu said. "None of us are rich. We all have mortgages. We all work hard to have what we have, and we want to assist finding a long-term solution for the homeless."

Twitter: @newsterrier

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