Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Many Churches, No Homeless Shelter

Yesterday I rode my bike to Coyote Hills with my friend Josue.  We went to take pictures and make a video to raise awareness about Measure W, a ballot measure in which Fullerton voters get to decide whether to approve or deny a massive housing and retail development on the last large natural open space in our community.

On the way back, Josue got a flat tire on his bike, so we had a long time to talk as we walked our bikes home.  Josue asked me what it was like growing up in Fullerton.  I explained how I was really involved in my church, the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, and how that shaped a lot of my experienes.

Growing up in the church, I went on missions trips to places like Mexico and Poland, to build houses and churches and “evangelize” to people less fortunate than us.  I felt good about doing these things.

But something that we rarely talked about in church were the real needs that existed in our own city, like homelessness and poverty.  I always associated poverty with faraway places.  Living in a comfortable suburb in Fullerton, it was easy to get this impression.  It wasn’t until I moved to downtown Fullerton in my mid 20s that I began to see that real needs existed right in the town I live in.

Take homelessness, for example.  There are hundreds of homeless people in Fullerton, and yet there is no year-round homeless shelter.  The only existing shelter I am aware of is the Cold Weather Armory, which is only open during the winter months.

What there are a LOT of in Fullerton are churches.  There are at least seven in the downtown area alone.  The fact that so many churches exist, with all their resources, and no homeless shelter exists, is deeply disturbing.

I asked my classes today why this might be the case.  That is, why are there so many churches (who have as their role model Jesus, a guy who cared deeply for the poor), and yet no permanent homeless shelter in Fullerton?  How can such affluence and potential goodwill exist right alongside unmet human need?

My students had some good insights as to why this might be the case.  One potential reason is image.  Orange County cities like Fullerton tend to place a strong emphasis on image and “looking nice.”  People invest huge amounts of money in houses and home improvements and having nice lawns.  Churches (like the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton) shell out millions of dollars to build themselves state-of-the-art facilities, media centers, parking structures, leisure areas.  Attending a service at my old church, or Saddleback Church, or Mariners Church in Irvine, one is impressed by the size and quality of the facilities.  These churches value “looking nice.”

Also, there are homeowner associations (HOAs) whose purpose is to keep neighborhoods “looking nice” to keep those property values up.

Allowing a homeless shelter into one of these “nice” communities might compromise this carefully constructed image.  It might drive down property values.  It might make neighborhoods appear “ugly.”  I remember a couple years back, when a local politician started talking about building “affordable housing” and various groups put out mailers saying “So-and-so wants to build low-income housing in YOUR neighborhood!”  As if this was a terrible thing.  If people in Fullerton get that up in arms about “low-income housing” I imagine they would not take kindly to a homeless shelter. 

The solution to homelessness, in places like Fullerton and Brea and Irvine and Newport is to simply not build homeless shelters, to essentially keep poverty at a distance, to use police and buses to physically herd the homeless from one place to the next.  In Irvine, for example, it is illegal to be homeless. 

This, of course, does nothing to solve the homelessness problem.  It simply pushes it away, for other communities to deal with.  

This is my friend Ernie.  Photo by my friend Josue.


  1. Jesse-

    You are right that there is no emergency shelter in Fullerton. In fact, there is no year-round emergency shelter in Orange County. Some of the reasons that you and your class mentioned are stymieing progress toward having that service available to individuals and families who need it.

    To lay blame at the feet of the churches, however, is not accurate. In my experience as a community organizer, the churches (and other congregations) in Fullerton have been very supportive of assisting people without housing through evening meals at the downtown churches and supporting Pathways of Hope grocery assistance/transitional housing and the Armory Cold Weather Shelter.

    NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard) is pervasive in Orange County and the churches are not immune to its affect, but there are larger issues which go unchecked in your inquiry about the lack of emergency shelter.

    There are also positive developments toward the implementation of this type of housing service:

    Part of the recommendation of the Task Force on Homelessness and Mental Illness approved by the former City Council requires (among other things) the development of a year-round emergency shelter. The Commission to End Homelessness' "10-year plan to end homelessness in Orange County" (Approved in 2009) also lists this as a priority objective. Senate Bill 2 requires each city to designate zoning for emergency shelter that is not subject to conditional use permitting roadblocks.

    These plans are good, but without public support, they can be drowned out against the sea of detractor voices. The implementation of these developments needs to be kept in front of our electeds as well as members of our community and city.

    In the meantime, the faith communities of Fullerton are continuing to be supportive of these efforts and would welcome the installation of a housing location that would provide a necessary service and provide a more dignified human path out of homelessness.

  2. My hometown of Mount Vernon, Ohio has a cold-weather shelter housed inside a church. Perhaps if we could establish a forum where everyone interested in the problem of homelessness could get together and research the best ideas/needs of each interested community we could put together plans of action--emphasize on ACTION. I think if church groups, students, etc. held "homeless for a night" events, where participants spent a night out-of-doors with no food and no money, it when bring attention to the terrors of being homeless in a direct and personal way. I don't think anyone involved would forget their experience and I believe compassion for the unfortunate would increase.

    Also, you may want to check out an article written by Kayla Strayer of the Daily Globe of Worthington, MN., which links to this web log.

    Thank you for writing a wonderful piece