Homeless-services group leaves city

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, the organization's president confirmed Thursday.

"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 tense love-hate relationship with Costa Mesa throughout its roughly seven years of offering services in the city, often finding itself at odds over how best to tackle homelessness.

"The truth is they were helping a segment of our homeless population," said Assistant City CEO Rick Francis. "It just seemed to conflict with what we were trying to do."

As the city's leaders took a hard line against so-called 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 over the course of the foundation's time in Costa Mesa, it has helped about 1,500 families, at least about 600 of whom are still in stable housing situations.

For the past 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 rub.

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 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 that 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.

Leon added that at the height of the Illumination Foundation's presence in Costa Mesa, the Motor Inn seemed to be the site of less criminal activity.

But Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer said the foundation was violating code, plain and simple.

"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 approach 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."

— Daily Pilot reporter Bradley Zint contributed to this report.

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