Supporters and opponents of a proposal to convert part of the Irvine Animal Care Center into temporary housing for the homeless packed the chambers of the City Council Tuesday night.
More than half of the overflow crowd of 180 sported small, red paper hearts. "We want to show that Irvine has a heart for the homeless," homeless shelter supporter Lynn Davanzio said.
At issue is a proposal for the city to spend $320,000 to transform one of two kennels at the city-owned Animal Care Center into a 50-bed shelter for the homeless. Only a portion of the five-acre animal center, which opened in 1984 in the 15000 block of Sand Canyon Road, is being used to house stray dogs and cats.
In August, the council, led by Mayor Larry Agran, voted, 3-2, to draw up plans to convert the empty kennel into a homeless shelter, despite a staff recommendation to move modular units onto the Sand Canyon site on Irvine's relatively undeveloped eastside.
Agran said Tuesday that the site is ideal for sheltering the homeless because it is in a remote location, far from residential development. "There's plenty of open space, fresh air and a chance (for the homeless) to get back into the mainstream," he said.
Opponents of the plan, however, believe that opening a central shelter for the homeless will act as a magnet, luring derelicts and street people to Irvine. They also contend that it is inappropriate to house people and animals in such close proximity. And they say that the site is too noisy for human habitation because of jet overflights from nearby El Toro Marine Base.
Malcolm Lewis, chairman of the board of the nonprofit Irvine Temporary Housing that would operate the shelter, told the City Council Tuesday night: "We are trying to care for Irvine families who've fallen on hard times because of divorce, loss of job or some other crisis.
"In July we had to turn away 46 Irvine families because we did not have the beds to serve them. Though the apartment program we now operate for the homeless is truly a fine one, it is so expensive that we cannot expand it."
Michael Winstead, pastor of the University United Methodist Church in Irvine, told the City Council: "Those who have expressed concerns for various reasons about the proposed residential shelter see dangers we don't feel. . . . Our ability to care for people who are exactly like us, except that they have fallen on hard times, is of paramount importance to our society. Helping the poor and homeless in Irvine is the right thing to do."
But Terry Flesha, a 47-year-old corporate fleet manager, disagreed. "My main objection is that I do not feel that I have any responsibility as a taxpayer to support others who for reasons of their own decide not to support themselves," Flesha said.
Others said that while they were not opposed to the concept of housing for the homeless in Irvine, they believed that kennels should not be converted for that purpose. "The image projected by having the homeless in an animal shelter badly downgrades the image of Irvine," Catherine Peters told the City Council.
"Have you asked the people who would have to live there if they would like to be housed in an animal shelter?" asked Peters, who identified herself as a supporter of Irvine Temporary Housing.
"This whole idea is ludicrous," Councilwoman Sally Miller said before the meeting. "The Irvine way is to incorporate people who are less fortunate into the mainstream, not isolate them."
Under state law, all municipalities must identify potential sites for the homeless by Jan. 1, 1988. Agran said the city should go further and take its "fair share of responsibility" in creating housing for the homeless.
There are about 5,000 homeless people in Orange County. Agran said that because Irvine has 5% of the county's population, the city should provide about 200 temporary beds.
Since 1984, Irvine Temporary Housing has been keeping five homeless families at a time in furnished city apartments. The locations are kept secret to protect the families' privacy and to guard against losing other tenants who might oppose the program, said Jim Palmer, executive director of the agency.
Up to 30 Irvine families may be homeless--somewhere--every night, Palmer said. A survey of churches and shelters undertaken by the unofficial ad hoc Irvine Task Force on the Homeless showed that nearly 400 men, women and children from Irvine have turned up at shelters in the county during the first six months of this year.
Most of Irvine's homeless, Palmer said, are not the stereotypical skid row castaways but families whose troubles are rooted in unemployment, divorces or serious illness. "Whether we like it or not, the homeless are here, and we've got to help," Agran said. "It's time we step forward and do something."