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.
The facility's remote Eastside location, away from most homes, is perfect for Irvine's first centralized homeless shelter, Mayor Larry Agran said. As the plan's chief proponent, the mayor appealed to residents of the master-planned community to do 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 the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station often buzz the animal shelter, making it difficult to hear or sleep.
And council members 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," Councilman C. David 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. . . ."
But proponents 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 the non-profit Irvine Temporary Housing, said most are women separated from husbands or people who are unemployed or seriously ill.
"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 the approach, city officials say, falls well short of the demand in a city of 100,000 that 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. Much of the cost will be paid with a $496,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But the issue is far from over. After 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.
Said Agran: "It is remarkable to me that in a city where so many have so much there is so little compassion at times."
Louis Roberts, an Irvine resident who has led the fight against the kennel conversion, said the council majority has "turned a deaf ear" to the community and proceeded with a plan that "nobody in our fair city wants."
Another resident, Michael Lennon, said the vote has "dealt a serious blow" to private efforts to raise money to buy modular units, like trailers, or more apartments to shelter homeless families.
"It is very, very unfortunate," Lennon said, "but our mayor has failed to take a leadership role on this issue."
Some, however, praised the council's stand.
"Do whatever you can to get that shelter," Jean Forbath said. "Grab that federal grant and hold on tight. If you let that money go--and the opportunity to do something positive--it will be a sad day for this city."
The animal shelter was built to meet Irvine's needs through 1990, and officials say by late next year the city will need the kennel to take care of animals. Because of the city's liberal stray animal policy, adoptable dogs and cats are kept at the facility up to 45 days in hope that new owners can be found.