Searching for an answer for Costa Mesa's homeless

The sentiment during a community workshop Thursday evening at Costa Mesa City Hall was nearly unanimous: Helping the homeless is vital, humane and complicated.

What wasn't so clear was how to help that troubled segment of the city's population, a majority of whom, according to a recent Vanguard University study, have ties to Costa Mesa.

The meeting, part of a broad citywide effort to address homelessness concerns, was largely prompted by a recent uproar over the council's consideration of Civic Center Park for a homeless housing development. Amid vociferous neighborhood opposition, the idea was quickly abandoned.

Speakers reacted to five options provided by the city. Some said they favored constructing housing exclusively for the homeless, while others said they would like to see a motel purchased and converted for that purpose.

The city's other options are constructing new housing with 50% homeless and 50% low income; acquiring and renovating several small apartment buildings; or implementing a type of tenant-based rental assistance program.

The primary problems with acquiring a motel are the cost and the dearth of real estate for sale, said Kathleen Head, a city consultant who presented the options at the meeting.

Other challenges, she said, include converting the motel rooms to apartments and finding sufficient cash flow for such a project.

Nonetheless, "we'll keep [the option] on the table," Head said.

Head said various studies show that when the homeless are off the streets, their emergency room visits, need for urgent detox services and incarceration rates decrease, saving taxpayers money.

After Head's presentation, residents and other advocates spoke for more than an hour.

Alex Gorham, who lives near Lions Park — where many of the city's homeless congregate — said residing there has actually been a "positive experience."

Gorham said he never feels unsafe in his neighborhood and frequently interacts with the homeless people.

"Let's not let location be a deterrent in realizing this important project," he said.

Anna McCarthy said the state-owned Fairview Developmental Center, off Harbor Boulevard, would be the ideal location for homeless housing.

City officials said in December, however, that the state was not interested.

McCarthy urged the city to lobby Sacramento and get the city's legislative representatives involved.

Mike Berry, a Westside homeowner, was critical of Costa Mesa's spending habits over the past 20 years, which he said haven't aided the homeless.

"Sadly, until we resolve the cause [of the spending], we're not going to be effective in providing housing going forward," Berry said. "And that is a tragedy.

"Given that, for the people of the Westside, the only thing left to them is an attempt to protect their homes from a city government that causes more problems than it solves."

Righeimer apology

In April, the City Council voted to have Santa Ana-based Mercy House Living Centers and San Diego-based Wakeland Housing and Development Corp. collaborate on a plan for the development of housing for the homeless that includes support services.

Costa Mesa officials have stressed that they are not looking to build an emergency shelter or mental health center. The housing would contain on-site supportive services, however.

In December, the council recommended that city staff examine using Civic Center Park for a development that could contain as many as 50 units. The news was soon met with disapproval from neighbors, and potential deed restrictions on the 2.52-acre park across from City Hall hinted at further complications.

On Dec. 31, city officials announced that they had essentially scrapped plans for using Civic Center Park. Since then, the council has not issued new recommendations for the project.

Mayor Jim Righeimer recused himself from April's vote and December's recommendation for Civic Center Park because he is an unpaid board member for Mercy House. On Thursday, however, he apologized for the idea to use the park, saying the recommendation was made too quickly.

"The project only happens when the community is on board," Righeimer said.

Costa Mesa is a compassionate community, he added, but it cannot become a magnet for the county's homeless population.

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