Despite widespread opposition from residents, the Irvine City Council voted 3 to 2 early Wednesday to use a federal grant to remodel part of an animal shelter into a 50-bed center for the homeless.
The kennel to be converted is one of two structures built in 1984 to house stray dogs and cats at the Irvine Animal Care Center. Animals will still be housed in the other building at the 20-acre site on Sand Canyon Avenue.
The facility's remote eastside location, away from most homes, is perfect for Irvine's first central homeless shelter, Mayor Larry Agran said. As the plan's chief proponent, the mayor appealed to residents of the master-planned community do to their "fair share" to help house Orange County's estimated 5,000 homeless.
Most opponents say they agree with the message, but not the method. They contend that housing humans in close proximity to animals, even temporarily, is unthinkable. They also contend that low-flying fighter jets from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station often fly near the animal shelter, making it difficult to hear or sleep.
Council members Ray Catalano and Ed Dornan voted with Agran for the proposal. Voting against were Councilman C. David Baker and Councilwoman Sally Anne Miller.
But the issue is far from over. Following the four-hour council debate that ended at 1 a.m. Wednesday, several residents' groups said they will take the city to court. And they threatened Agran with recall.
Louis Roberts, an Irvine resident who has led the fight against the kennel conversion, said a recall effort against Agran is a "real probability," adding that it would be aimed solely at Agran and not the two council members who voted with him on the homeless issue, because Agran is the "force behind the shelter."
He said he has researched the procedures to start a recall, but by yesterday he had not acted on the threat.
Agran said: "It is remarkable to me that in a city where so many have so much, there is so little compassion at times."
Baker and Miller, who oppose the centralized homeless shelter in Irvine, warned that such a shelter would lure street people and derelicts to the middle- and upper-class community
"Nobody is trying to say no to helping the homeless," Baker said. "It's just that we don't want to send an open invitation to the entire world to come on down and visit."
In a recent letter Baker sent to residents, he said widespread publicity surrounding the issue was drawing a growing number of transients to the city.
But Police Chief Leo Peart said Wednesday that that perception is untrue. On a recent weekend, Peart said, officers were asked to monitor transients in the city. Just 11, including two women, were counted.
"We have not identified any marked increase in the community," Peart said.
To discourage out-of-town homeless from flocking to the city, proponents of the centralized shelter say the tenants will be screened, with Irvine residents given priority.
Social workers in the city say up to 30 Irvine families, mostly single parents with children, may be homeless somewhere every night in the city. Jim Palmer, executive director of nonprofit Irvine Temporary Housing, said most are women separated from husbands or victims of unemployment or serious illness.
Victims of Circumstance
"They are people trapped by unfortunate circumstances, unable to meet their rent," said Palmer, whose group will operate the center. "Often, the only alternative is the back seat of their car or a park."
Until now, Irvine's homeless have been housed for up to 90 days in five subsidized apartments scattered around the city. But that approach, city officials said, falls well short of the demand in a city that numbers 100,000 residents and is growing by about 1,000 people a month.
The solution, Agran said, is conversion of the state-of-the-art kennel, with its central heating, air conditioning and skylights. City officials estimate the cost at about $327,000 to remove steel bars and add new flooring, sinks and toilets to create the dormitory-style facility. Part of the cost to remodel and operate the shelter for five years will be paid with the $496,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but city officials say some private money will still be needed.
Roberts, who is president of the Orangetree Master Homeowners' Assn., an area about one-third of a mile from the animal shelter, said the council majority has "turned a deaf ear" to the community and proceeded with a plan that "nobody in our fair city wants."
Blow to Other Efforts
Another resident, Michael Lennon, said the vote has "dealt a serious blow" to private efforts to raise money to buy modular units, such as trailers, or more apartments to shelter homeless families.