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.|