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DANA PARSONS

Homeless: Out of Sight, Out of Fullerton

March 07, 2001|DANA PARSONS

Jim Miller laughs as he describes the situation at the homeless shelter at the National Guard Armory in Fullerton.

Sort of.

That is, it's not a happy laugh. More like a disgusted one.

The rules require that people spending the night take a chartered bus to or from the shelter. Those buses transport them at dawn and early evening to and from two specified street corners in nearby Anaheim. The exceptions are people who can prove they're going to a job, appointment or a class. If they can, they can walk out of the shelter.

But what no one can do, for example, is leave the shelter on foot just to take a walk.

Miller, who runs the nonprofit Shelter for the Homeless organization in Midway City, thinks the rules are too restrictive. He notes that until several weeks ago, no one was allowed to walk into the armory; all had to come by bus from the Anaheim pickup sites.

"It's like you think you're in Nazi Germany," Miller says.

His hyperbole notwithstanding, it's inarguable that the rest of us make rules for the homeless and relegate them to little more than game board pieces in our designs.

You think not? Would you accept a rule that you couldn't take a walk at 11 at night or 5 in the morning? Would you accept a rule that, regardless of whether you wanted to or not, you'd be bused in the morning to an Anaheim street corner?

If you're a homeless person staying at the armory, you do.

Why that's so is all part of the complex and largely unsolved problem of what to do with the homeless.

Simply put, no one wants them in their town, much less their neighborhood. But we shouldn't single out Fullerton. It just so happens the armory is there, and that's why up to 150 people a night stay there during the winter. The current rules are meant to prevent the homeless from congregating on streets and in business areas near the building. Last year there were unhappy calls from residents or merchants, police say.

Dumping Ground?

The rules in place now are the result of meetings involving county officials, Miller's agency and various city and law enforcement representatives.

Fullerton Police Capt. Ron Rowell makes no bones about it: The homeless problem shouldn't be Fullerton's alone.

"You take all the homeless people in north Orange County and dump them here," he says. "This is, in my view, a regional problem, not something the city of Fullerton is responsible for handling, yet we're getting the brunt of the problem."

Thus, as you perhaps deduced, the rules for the Fullerton armory are designed to keep the homeless out of sight at all times. Bus 'em in, bus 'em out. Mostly under cover of winter's darkness.

That rankles Noe Ernesto Garcia Ruiz, who's spent many a night this winter at the armory.

We talk under a cloudy sky Tuesday as he sits on a bench near railroad tracks, not far from the armory. Ruiz says he doesn't want to get up in the morning and take a bus to Anaheim. For now, he doesn't have to, because he's got a paper somewhere in the belongings on his back that shows he does handyman chores for a friend.

Why does he object to going to Anaheim? "Because I'm a Fullerton man," he says. "I live here. I don't live in Anaheim, Santa Ana or Buena Park."

It bugs him when security guards ask him where he's going as he leaves the armory. "It's supposed to be a homeless place," Ruiz, 51, says, "where you can go in and out any time you want. If not, you feel like you're in jail."

I think he knows he isn't holding many cards, but Ruiz is still defiant. "I'd rather sleep under that bush than take that bus," he says.

A county official says he's surprised that homeless advocate Miller is unhappy, given that his organization signed off on the rules.

I sense Miller did so grudgingly. "My concern is that you can't prevent people from walking in, nor can you prevent them from leaving," Miller says. "You have to treat them like human beings."

I ask where he got a crazy idea that the homeless should be treated like human beings.

Miller laughs again. Sort of.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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