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Dana Parsons

In NIMBY's Neighborhood, Mary's Home Isn't Welcome

April 14, 1993|Dana Parsons

Mary Kretschmar no doubt thought she was just being generous. "Here's the money," she said. "Use it to help somebody." Kretschmar's only stipulation was that it be used for the needy of La Habra.

Oh, sweet Mary. Things aren't nearly that simple anymore.

Kretschmar didn't live long enough to see what happened to the $250,000 she gave in 1987 to St. Vincent de Paul Society. Maybe it's just as well. What she would have seen is how even the most laudable of projects gets mired in the mud of bureaucracy and neighborhood opposition.

St. Vincent's trustees, mindful of the city's homeless problem, decided to use Kretschmar's largesse as seed money for a housing facility for welfare mothers with preschool children. The trustees discovered that La Habra had as many as 570 women who might qualify.

The plans grew into a 28-unit facility to be called Mary's Home. When St. Guadalupe Church offered to lease a vacant lot behind the church for $1 a year, the St. Vincent trustees thought they had struck gold.

That was about four years and many bureaucratic hoops ago. Today, the plans for Mary's Home are still confined to an architect's rendering mounted on an easel.

"I didn't think it'd be a slam-dunk," says project coordinator Bob Hana, "but I had no idea we'd meet the degree of opposition that we have. We put together a project that is beautiful in every respect. It probably would be one of the best buildings in La Habra. We designed a program to help people at no cost to the city whatsoever, other than police and fire protection. We designed the thing so we would not be taking in mental patients off the street or people who are addicted to alcohol or narcotics. We set it up so people would have to be screened before they were brought in and set up stringent rules that would apply once it was built. We just looked at it and said: 'This is one hell of a project. How can anyone be against it?' "

Stop me if you've heard this, but residents near the proposed site objected. And although Mary's Home backers say all the studies regarding traffic or other allegedly adverse impacts have been satisfactorily answered, the project languishes.

"Somewhere, it's getting held up," says Bill Hawkins of St. Vincent De Paul's. "I think they've done just about everything they can to politely discourage us," says Pete Sterling, another project backer, referring to city government.

La Habra Councilman Juan Garcia begs to differ. He lives in the general area of the proposed project and at one point had publicly supported it. He's now noncommittal but said that should not be taken to mean he's changed his mind. Rather, he said, the city just wants to make sure they've studied the issue thoroughly.

Isn't this just the latest not-in-my-back-yard problem, Garcia is asked. "To a certain degree, it probably is a NIMBY scenario," he replies. The project is even more problematic, he says, because right or wrong, the idea of homeless people carries a stigma for some local residents.

La Habra didn't invent problems like this. When asked how city governments should handle such problems, Garcia acknowledged that "that's almost a rhetorical question."

In other words, officials in most cities are stumped.

In theory, Garcia said, it's difficult to fault a project like Mary's Home.

In practice, try telling it to the neighbors, who worry that the shelter will hurt their property values.

This is one NIMBY problem that isn't going to go away. If City Hall was hoping that the Mary's Home people would pack up their tent and go home, that isn't going to happen.

I spent an hour with them, and they don't strike me as the give-up types. To the contrary, they seem like crusaders convinced of the rightness of their cause and warming for battle, if there is to be one.

Mary's Home, which would have a staff of trained advisers, will take people off the streets and off welfare rolls, Hana says. "I'm not a bleeding heart liberal," he says, "but I do think it's a good project. It's good for the city, and I just keep saying to everybody I talk to: 'I'd just like to know the reason why (it's taking so long). W-H-Y. It just buffaloes me."

So, what should the neighborhood do?

Support Mary's Home wholeheartedly, and on the first day it opens, bake a dozen cakes and take them over to the 28 mothers and their preschool children. While there, the neighbors should encourage the women to turn their lives around. Then, the neighbors should return to their homes, comforted by the knowledge that the families are less of a drain on society under the protective roof of Mary's Home than they would be sleeping in cars without a future in sight.

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