A skinny, unremarkable, triangle-shaped piece of land has brought a neighborhood in the city of Fullerton to a full boil.
The land is located between a busy thoroughfare and four sets of railroad tracks.
It’s surrounded beyond by middle-class neighborhoods.
City leaders were approached about building an apartment complex on this land.
The building would house 60 to 80 people who are chronically unhoused and have a disability, which could include mental illness or a substance abuse disorder.
This story was originally published on Oct. 15, 2018. We are re-publishing this updated version together with the release of the LAist Studios podcast "Imperfect Paradise: Home is Life," which is based on this story.
Community meetings were held. Facebook Live posts were streamed. There was a tour of similar developments in OC. There were phone calls. And letters. And angry social media posts. And more meetings and more calls and more letters and then last week ... the project imploded, before it even got started.
This is a breakdown of the breakdown. And if you live in California, a similar story might be playing out in a neighborhood near you.
Chapter 1: The Standoff
David Gillanders is standing in a 2.25-acre city lot, sweeping his tattooed arm toward the far end.
Gillanders heads Pathways of Hope, an organization that’s been providing food and shelter to low-income people in Fullerton and other north Orange County cities for more than 40 years.
At one time, there was a plant here owned by mustard-maker Morehouse. Now it’s a city maintenance yard.
Gillanders has a different vision — one that he says will give neighbors a better view than the orange cones and gravel there now.
"That whole end of the property is going to be green space," Gillanders explains.
The centerpiece of the lot will be an apartment complex, in Spanish Mediterranean-style architecture, to house 60 to 80 of the city's chronically unhoused residents.
The tenants would get their own, subsidized apartment, and social services like therapy and substance abuse counseling. This model of addressing people experiencing chronic homelessness, defined as living on the street for at least a year, and who have a disability, including mental illness, is called permanent supportive housing. The approach has proven to be the best way to get and keep people off the streets.
- Permanent supportive housing: Permanent supportive housing is a housing model that provides rental assistance and long-term supportive services to formerly unhoused people, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
- Not in my backyard: This is often shortened to NIMBY (Not in my backyard) or Nimbyism. It's defined as a "colloquialism signifying one’s opposition to the locating of something considered undesirable in one’s neighborhood" in the Encyclopædia Britannica.
"It's not a shelter," Gillanders says, brow furrowed. He's heard the misperception ad nauseam. "It's a solution to a problem everyone has been asking about for a long time."
The problem is, some neighbors don't see it as a solution at all. A small group has launched a loud campaign to block Gillanders' plan. They have no qualms about saying it, even yelling it: "Not in my backyard."
Fullerton — like cities throughout Orange County — is under pressure to house people experiencing homelessness.
The county has an ambitious new goal: Every city builds its fair share of 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing.
Gillanders' project is the plan’s first big test, so lots of people are watching.
Perhaps no one more closely than the people who own homes nearby.
Nina Parker and her neighbors Philip and Stephanie Bromley live a few blocks from the lot where Pathways wants to build supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. They’re among those leading opposition to the project.
"Fullerton is known for its scenic trails," Nina Parker says across the table at a busy restaurant in the city's downtown. A waiter interrupts to drop an ahi sandwich in front of her.
"Now you see tents. Now you see garbage."
Parker and the Bromleys are grabbing lunch before a meeting with the city manager.
Philip Bromley owns a biotech firm, Virun, which makes nutritional foods and supplements. When he found out that the city was considering giving the land in his neighborhood to Pathways, he told the city he wanted to buy it and open a plant there. His offer has given neighbors who oppose the Pathways project an alternative around which to rally.
Bromley administers a Facebook group that has become a forum for complaints about homelessness in the neighborhood, loosely known as Little Chapman-Adlena Park. (Bromley also sometimes calls her area the "Kimmie's Coffee Cup neighborhood" after a much-loved café across the street from the city maintenance yard.)
One recent post reads:
This morning I had the displeasure of seeing a homeless fellow wearing nothing but half-down jeans enjoying himself on somebody's yard off of King.
As kids were walking down little Chapman to school I opted to pull over in order to read him the riot act until he fixed his pants."
The Facebook group has also become the main platform for organizing opposition to the Pathways project.
Between mouthfuls at the restaurant, Bromley and Parker lay out their reasons why Pathways should house people experiencing homelessness somewhere else:
Bromley: "I'm concerned that we're going to attract people from other cities and then they're going to become our responsibility."
Parker: "These facilities should be in industrial areas because they are not located close to parks or close to schools."
Bromley: "We spent a lot of money to buy homes and to get our kids to school. And, you know, just to live the American dream, and we feel like our safety and our well-being is being compromised and no one's thinking about us."
The two women say they feel compassion for people experiencing homelessness. Bromley tells me she hands out McDonald's gift cards to people she encounters around town asking for money.
But Bromley and Parker are concerned about their kids’ safety, and maintaining the quality of their good, middle-class lives.
They're not the only ones. Thirty-nine people spoke at a city council meeting in June against Gillander’s proposal. Fourteen people spoke in support of the project, but they weren't as loud or angry as many of the opponents.
Parker delivered a tearful plea to the Fullerton City Council to vote against signing an exclusive negotiating agreement with Pathways. Such agreements are standard, first steps. Most developers won't waste time on a potential site until they have an agreement with a city to use the land as planned.
You can't relocate more homeless to our area until you take care of what's wrong right now. This is my home, and I can't let you do this to my home.
Up until they heard from the angry neighbors at that meeting, the mayor and at least some of the city council members seemed ready to support the Pathways of Hope project.
The pivot was immediate.
"Frankly, it’s dead in the water unless the neighbors are at least lukewarm supportive," Council Member Greg Sebourn said at that June meeting. "If this thing goes forward, I know you’d do a great job ... But you need to convince everyone else of that, too."
So that's Gillanders' task: win over the neighbors. Or at least some of them. And then the city will decide whether to proceed with negotiations.
In 2018, some 130,000 people were unhoused in California on any given night. (In 2020, the number was estimated at more than 161,000.) If no one wants them living in their neighborhood, how will we ever get people housed and off the streets?
Chapter 2: The Tour
I meet a small group in front of Fullerton City Hall to take a tour of permanent supportive housing for chronically unhoused people in Orange County. We’re here because city council members and proponents of the Pathways project suggested it might be illuminating for residents to see some existing developments.
The hope of those backing the project is that the neighbors will be less fearful the more they know.
Councilman Jesus Silva is leading the tour. Kelsey Brewer, the now-former legislative affairs manager for Orange County's branch of the Association of California Cities is also with us. Brewer is one of the authors of the countywide plan to build 2,700 units of permanent supportive housing in Orange County.
- Stop 1: Rockwood, Anaheim
Our first stop is the Rockwood Apartments in Anaheim. It's an attractive, 70-unit apartment building right next to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School.
Most of the units are for families, many of them formerly unhoused. Fifteen of the units are for formerly unhoused individuals with a history of mental illness. They all get onsite case management. Danielle Ball, who oversees supportive services for Jamboree Housing, which built Rockwood, shows us around.
"All the kids, families, bring chairs out, blankets out, we pass out popcorn and do movie nights out here," she says, walking us through the spacious courtyard, which includes a private playground.
A few of the Fullerton neighbors note how clean and attractive the building is. But they have lots of questions about the tenants and how the apartments are managed. Top of the list: drug and alcohol use.
"Are there any restrictions on alcohol or drug use here?" Pat Ducey asks.
"Um, no," Ball says tentatively, perhaps sensing the coming storm. "If we see it in the community and it's causing a problem and a lease violation, then yes, they would get written up.
"We do not do checks for alcohol, we do not do checks for drugs."
This doesn't go over well with Christina Brittain.
(At a prior city council meeting about the Pathways proposal, Brittain told council members that she was a long-time volunteer for Pathways and "loved" the organization. Then she vowed to sue if the city let Pathways house people living on the streets in her neighborhood.)
"What I'm hearing from this is that our tax dollars, ultimately, are going towards supporting this," Brittain says. "And that if they're doing drugs in their own (apartment), that's their business.
"If you know about it, you try to help them, but don't force them to get help ... and they could live there for the rest of their lives and use drugs in the privacy of their own home. That's crazy."
Ball tries to explain that at Rockwood, like any other apartment building, the management can't just barge into someone's unit.
Plus, decades of research show that people who have spent years on the street are much more likely to stay housed if you give them a roof first and then address addiction and other mental health disorders.
(It used to be standard practice among homeless aid organizations to require people to earn a place to live by first getting sober while living on the streets. It didn't work. The federal government has promoted a "housing first" model since the George W. Bush administration.)
In 2017, 99% of formerly unhoused individuals — 2,419 people — in permanent supportive housing in Orange County remained housed, according to county spokesperson Molly Nichelson.
- Stop 2: Doria, Irvine
We head to our next site, on newly-developed land near the Woodbury Town Center shopping center in Irvine. It's an immaculate, 134-unit complex for low-income residents and formerly unhoused individuals with mental illness.
It looks like any other new, resort-style apartment complex in Irvine. Stylish architecture; manicured grounds; a pool.
But here, things get even messier on the tour. Some of the neighbors had been live-streaming on Facebook. And the Doria's management won't let them record.
"So I'm going to waste my time having everything sugar-coated by these people?" a livid Sheri Carter says outside.
Carter lives a few blocks from the site where Pathways wants to build in Fullerton.
"I'm so hurt and devastated over what's happening to our community," Carter says, holding back tears. "My husband worked hard for that house. And we just want to feel safe and they want to take that away from us?"
Carter is convinced that the Pathways project would ruin her dreams for a peaceful retirement. She does not seem open to being persuaded otherwise. She and her husband get into their truck and leave the tour.
- Stop 3: The Orchard, Santa Ana
Our final stop is at a 71-unit former motel that's been converted into housing for former, chronically unhoused individuals and couples. It has stylish, eco-friendly landscaping and a huge community food garden out back.
"We have security gates and security guards," says co-owner Kyle Paine, addressing a typical concern.
The Pathways project would also have security. But by this point it's become clear that some of the neighbors don't really care about assurances. They just want Pathways to house people living on the streets somewhere else.
It's not that I don't want to help the homeless. I don't want it where it's proposed.
Catherine Reese, who was live streaming the tour, has generated a local following in Fullerton by posting videos of her "interviewing" unhoused people around town. She often asks her subjects if they want help and then berates them if they refuse or waver.
("Get a cell phone, you can call Bridges at Kraemer and get off the streets," she tells one man, who she just met. Bridges is a referral-only shelter that has been nearly booked solid since it opened last year. "I'm tired of my tax dollars going to people who won't f---ing get off the street," she tells the man in the video.)
Back at city hall, Gretchen Cox says the day was "very educational." It's the most positive comment I hear. Cox took copious notes on the tour to share with friends who live in the neighborhood where Pathways wants to build. (She lives in Fullerton, but not in the Little Chapman-Adlena Park neighborhood.)
"Seeing, first of all, how nice these places are," she says, "the one in Irvine, I mean, who would know that it was there?"
Cox also notes that the developments don't seem to be magnets for people still living on the streets.
But she's troubled that she doesn't see an incentive for people to move on from permanent supportive housing and become more independent.
"It's like going to the beach with a bag of french fries, when the french fries run out and you've got now 5,000 seagulls flocked all over you, what are you going to do?"
Chapter 3: Living On Fullerton's Streets
"That bench right there," says Curtis Gamble, pointing out bus bay No. 3 at the Fullerton Transportation Center, "that's where I used to sleep."
Gamble is tall and burly with a salt and pepper goatee. He slept on the bench for eight years after he lost his job as a bus driver.
He says he had to sleep sitting up most of the time, because the city installed armrests that made it impossible to lay lengthwise.
Then Gamble won a legal settlement with the city in 2016 over Fullerton's failure to zone for homeless shelters, which is state law. He used his share of the cash settlement to get an apartment.
The bus depot is where a good number of the city's unhoused population sleeps, hangs out and panhandles.
On the night Gamble shows me around, an elderly man nods off on the same bench where Gamble used to sleep. A group of people I met earlier at a soup kitchen socialize in another bay. They laugh at a woman sitting next to a pile of tattered bags, belting out raunchy lyrics at the top of her lungs.
Nearby, a signpost is adorned with a bouquet of fake flowers and a laminated picture of Kelly Thomas.
Thomas was 37 and living on Fullerton's streets when he died at the hands of Fullerton police officers in 2011.
A security camera caught the encounter on tape, in which Kelly repeatedly tells officers he can't breathe, says he's "sorry" and calls out for his dad. The footage is extremely disturbing.
Two officers were charged and acquitted in his death; charges against a third officer were dropped. There were big protests. The police chief resigned. Three city council members were recalled. And Kelly's parents won multi-million dollar settlements.
But the whole, terrible incident — and the fallout — didn't do much to address the large number of people like Kelly, who was schizophrenic, living on the streets.
A few blocks away from the bus depot, volunteers serve up spaghetti at First Christian Church for anyone who needs a meal. Jacquie Nolan says they serve between 100 and 120 people every night, though not all are unhoused.
Gamble keeps track of the time, day and location of all the free meals in Orange County in a one-page resource guide. He also notes places you can take a shower and get help finding housing. He carries copies of the guide with him to hand out.
Gamble's guide is part of the triage going on all over Southern California as the region grapples with a major crisis in homelessness. The number of unhoused people in Orange County rose 13% from 2013 to 2017, according to the last official count.
In Los Angeles County, homelessness rose 34% over that time period, though it has since dropped slightly, according to a 2018 count.
An unusually large percentage of those experiencing homelessness here are unsheltered, meaning they live on the street. California, as a whole, accounted for nearly half of all unsheltered people in the country in 2017, an estimated 91,642 people, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
I sit across from Eve Lucas. She has long blonde hair and tanned, muscular arms and legs. She looks like at athlete, which it turns out she is. She plays softball every weekend at nearby Lemon Park.
Lucas was born and raised in Fullerton, and she's been living in her van for five years.
"I really can't believe it's that long," she says. "It so happens I lost my place ... that wasn't even expected ever. And I've been here ever since," Lucas tells me.
She says she keeps trying to climb back into society, the part that's housed and working.
"I finally got work and then my car broke. I got hit on my bike. It all sounds like drama. And I just need that little bit of a boost to help me.
It's really hard. Really, really, really, really, scary hard."
Jason Nielsen, a 43-year-old Fullerton native with spiky hair and a prominent nose ring, walks with me outside after dinner. His plummet into homelessness started when his stressful, graveyard-shift job at a food processing plant got to be too much. His loud roommates wouldn't let him sleep in the daytime.
Nielsen says he packed up his stuff, put it in storage, and went off all his mental health medications, thinking it would help calm his anxiety.
When you're under a lot of distress, and stress, you do things you normally wouldn't do.
For several years, he filtered in and out of shelters, crashed for a while with a relative in Nevada, who turned out to be an alcoholic, and slept in his car.
Just weeks ago, Nielsen moved into his own apartment in a permanent supportive housing complex built by an organization called A Community of Friends. It's in an area of Fullerton dominated by light industry and commercial strip malls.
ACOF had originally wanted to build the apartments in the same neighborhood that is fighting off Pathways' similar proposal now. The neighbors fought hard against it.
The organization was forced to find another site when the owner of the property they wanted to build on declined to give them more time to close escrow.
Because of the delays, the apartments Nielsen now lives in took five years to build and cost about $1 million dollars more than planned, much of it public funds, Dora Leong Gallo, president of ACOF, tells me.
She says the apartments' current location is on the margin of the type of location her organization considers acceptable.
"We want to make sure that people are in an area where they can thrive," Gallo says, "and that means access to amenities that all of us want: schools, grocery stores, transportation."
The site does have those things, but it's missing the kinds of amenities you get in a residential neighborhood, likes parks. And neighbors.
The apartment complex, which is modern and stylish, sits between a gas station and an office building. Across the street is a glass factory and another gas station.
Fullerton has actually done more than many Southern California cities to address homelessness. Nielsen and 35 other formerly unhoused and low-income individuals and families now have apartments.
The city also hosts a winter emergency shelter (though not by choice, it's owned by the National Guard), which is located a mile from where Pathways wants to build permanent supportive housing.
(The armory shelter, as the emergency shelter is known, was not supposed to reopen this winter, under a deal struck after Fullerton agreed to pay for part of the Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter in Anaheim. But the city was recently asked to host it again, while nearby cities work to get more permanent shelters in place by next spring.)
Still, a recent count found 230 people sleeping outside in the city. Experts say more emergency shelters are needed. But if there's no housing to follow, people are likely to return to the streets.
Nielsen is the type of person permanent supportive housing is intended to help — unhoused for more than a year and struggling with mental illness.
I ask him, though it seems like a stupid question, if it feels good to finally have his own place.
"Yes, yes it does," he says. "It gives you a starting point where you can rebuild your life."
Chapter 4: Homelessness 101
David Gillanders picks up the buzzy microphone at the Fullerton maintenance yard community room — right next door to the property where he wants to build supportive housing — and introduces himself.
It's the first community meeting Pathways is holding after city council members tasked the organization with warming residents to the idea of housing 60 to 80 chronically unhoused individuals in their neighborhood.
The tour of permanent supportive housing units organized earlier was pretty small, only about 10 people took it. This meeting is for a much wider audience and the goal is to deliver a basic education on homelessness.
"So what we wanted to do was have Becks Heyhoe from Orange County United Way do her Homelessness 101 curriculum as we advertised on the flyer," he says.
Heyhoe queues up her slides on the projector. Who are Orange County's homeless?; Why are they homeless?; How much does homelessness cost taxpayers?
It's a two-hour presentation, condensed for the Fullerton neighbors. Heyhoe regularly delivers it to city and faith leaders, philanthropists and everyday residents.
Much of the presentation's Orange County specifics are based on a 2017 UC Irvine study that busted several common myths.
- Nearly 70% of unhoused people surveyed for the study were long-term OC residents, not new arrivals;
- The inability to find or retain a job or affordable housing were cited as the top reasons for losing their home;
- Providing supportive housing to a person experiencing chronic homelessness is an estimated 40% less expensive than leaving them on the streets, where some are a heavy financial burden on law enforcement and hospitals.
For the most part, people listen politely to Heyhoe's presentation. But about a quarter of the audience leaves before it's over, some of them in a huff.
I catch up with one woman in the hallway. She won't give me her name because she's worried about unhoused people coming after her.
"They'll try and figure out where we live, they'll be camping on our lawns," she said, her agitation growing along with her list of potential retribution, "they'll break bottles in our street, they'll leave needles strewn around."
She flat out doesn’t believe that the lack of affordable housing is a major cause of homelessness in OC.
"You're homeless because you made bad choices and you ended up there," she said, adding she now planned to go to the city council meeting to protest the Pathways project.
The second community meeting was held a week later. Gillanders displayed questions on the overhead projector that neighbors had emailed in advance.
Will you allow residents to do drugs?
Gillanders says it's the single biggest question Pathways gets about its permanent supportive housing model. He explains that potential tenants won't be barred because of a history of drug or alcohol abuse. But they will get help getting sober as soon as they're tenants.
He says Pathways "won't turn a blind eye to criminal activity."
Why do these homeless people get to live in free housing while I have to work hard every day to pay for housing on my own?
Tenants in permanent supportive housing pay a portion of their monthly income toward rent. Most have a mental illness or physical disability. Addiction to drugs or alcohol is a mental illness.
Gillanders talks about a man named RJ who was shot in the head during a home invasion. "RJ lived on the riverbed because he had chronic migraines that do not stop. And he cannot work and he will never work again a day in his life." Gillanders says RJ is a prime candidate for permanent supportive housing.
One day after the meetings, I sit down for a long chat with Gillanders, on the porch of a shelter run by Pathways near downtown Fullerton. I had questions.
Me: How do you think the community meetings are going?
Gillanders: I think there's still a lot of misunderstanding. A lot of our homeless folks on the street will not be able to bootstrap themselves through homelessness.
Show me the math, the calculus on how many people are going to get sober on the street. Demonstrate for me how homelessness is ended with anything other than a set of keys, a lease and a place to call home.
Me: What do you make of people who say they love Pathways and volunteer with the organization, but still oppose housing the homeless in their neighborhood.
Gillanders: It's not souplessness, It's not clotheslessness. It's not showerlessness. It's homelessness.
Yes, handing out toys to families matters. Yes, everyone's got to eat. But while you're helping maybe pacify or improve someone's day or get their stomachs full, that is not the same as ending homelessness. It's just not.
Me: This must be the worst part of your job, trying to convince residents not to oppose your efforts to get people off the streets.
Gillanders: I'm not gonna tell you it's not exhausting. But it's also exciting. We have a massive need for this kind of housing. Most people don't even argue that at this point.
It is, in my mind, a moral issue of a country that's the richest that's ever existed, living in a county that is so wealthy, that can't figure out a way to provide for 2,700 people who are really, really vulnerable and die on the streets every year.
You add all those things up and it's hard to say that this isn't the right thing to do. But maybe you don't want it in your neighborhood. Okay, well, we can talk about that piece of it.
Chapter 5: There Goes The Neighborhood?
Gillanders seems sanguine about people not accepting supportive housing in their neighborhoods, which I find puzzling. He says the lot where he wants to build in Fullerton is the only available option. Pathways has a modest budget. It needs the city to donate the land. And the Little Chapman-Adlena Park neighbors seem entrenched in their opposition.
Residents opposed to the Pathways housing proposal often cite a nearby church that lets unhoused people sleep on its grounds as both an example of how west Fullerton already does its fair share to help, and as a magnet attracting undesirables to their neighborhood.
The church, St. Philip Benizi, lets a few dozen people sleep in the large parking lot of the church every night. It’s located about a mile from where Gillanders wants to build his supportive housing apartment complex.
Pastor Father Dennis Kriz says the church didn’t plan on letting people sleep in their parking lot, but when they showed up, he didn't kick them out.
And then more came.
"I started to see this, honestly, like a slow-moving refugee crisis," Kriz says.
Earlier this year, the church held a community meeting to float the idea of starting a more formal, safe parking program.
"We had some people who are radically opposed to it," Deacon Richard Doubledee says. "There was a point where someone tried to take over the meeting ... and one of the parishioners stood up and defended what we were doing."
Still, Doubledee concedes that even some of the faithful don't like the idea.
"We don't know that we've overcome all the fears," Doubledee says. "Until you see it work, you're going to be afraid."
Fear of people with mental illness or substance abuse problems — which commonly occur together — is not unfounded. Extreme manifestations of both can be scary, and dangerous.
Bad experiences can test people's good intentions.
Earlier this year, a church in Fullerton agreed to host an emergency homeless shelter for a few days while the Armory shelter was being used by the National Guard. A man on his way to the church shelter wandered into someone's house, and then followed a young girl into the bathroom.
Nothing further happened. But it understandably shook up the family and the larger community.
I want to test out the fears I'd heard from the Little Chapman-Adlena Park neighbors about housing people experiencing homelessness — about declining property values and rising crime.
So housing reporter Matt Tinoco and I decide to canvass a neighborhood that’s been the location of a supportive apartment complex for formerly unhoused people that's been in Anaheim since 2008.
The 25-unit Diamond apartments faced fierce opposition when they were proposed. It was Anaheim's first experience with permanent supportive housing and only the second in the county.
Community opposition delayed the project for two years.
Now it's the nicest building on a block of aging, small apartment buildings and single-family homes.
Tinoco and I split up to knock on doors. Tinoco catches up with John Rutherford, who's out walking his dog. His house, where he's lived for 20 years, is right across the street from the Diamond apartments.
"I haven't had too much trouble with them, to be honest with you," he says.
"They get the police down there every once in awhile."
Rutherford says he's met some of the residents on walks.
"I guess they're pretty strict with them," he says. "A couple of them complained to me that they inspect their house, make sure they're keeping their apartments clean and everything."
Residents get their apartments inspected as a requirement of the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, which partially funds Diamond and many other affordable and supportive housing developments across the country.
Anaheim spokesperson Mike Lyster later confirms that police do get called out to Diamond more than to other apartments. But he says that's because the management runs a tight ship, and because the city wants to make sure there aren't any problems for the neighborhood.
Tinoco and I talk to about 30 neighbors over the course of several hours. Most people tell us they didn't know that formerly unhoused people lived at Diamond.
"I thought they were just regular apartments," says Marta Lozada in Spanish.
She's lived in her house for almost 10 years and says the neighborhood is tranquil. Still, she doesn't feel comfortable letting her adolescent kids walk to school alone because of the RVs, in which unhoused people live, parked along their route.
"They run ahead and leave me behind, and I don't know if someone is going to pull them into their car," she says.
Academics and policymakers have done a lot of research on how affordable housing affects neighborhoods, but less about permanent supportive housing, specifically.
Ingrid Gould Ellen at New York University's Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy authored a study that looked at the effect on nearby property values of all supportive housing built in New York City from 1985 to 2003 — 7,500 units in 123 developments spread across higher and lower density parts of the city.
She found that property values within 500 feet of supportive housing tend to increase more than those in the surrounding area in the years following a supportive housing development's completion.
Houses a bit further away, between 500 and 1000 feet from supportive housing, initially dropped in value during construction, but then rose after completion.
Gould Ellen hypothesizes that "community uneasiness about the housing" might contribute to that initial drop, which disappears as time goes by and actual experience overcomes fear.
"We found no evidence that the homes near to supportive housing suffered because of their proximity to supportive housing," Gould Ellen tells me on the phone.
Los Angeles is collecting millions in Measure HHH funds to build supportive housing throughout the city. But it's already having trouble keeping up with the goal of building 10,000 units over the next decade.
Orange County cities plans to start pooling public and private funds to build supportive housing via the newly created OC Housing Finance Trust.
Proposition 1 and 2, both on the November ballot, would, if passed, bring in millions more to build supportive housing. The question is: where will we build it?
Chapter 6: No Vote
On August 21, Fullerton City Council holds a regular meeting. The Pathways project isn't on the agenda. But more than 30 people in yellow shirts fill the small chambers to show opposition to Pathways of Hope's housing proposal.
Afterwards, I talk to Stephanie Bromley, one of the women opposing the project who had lunch with me in July. She's the kind of neighbor Pathways director Gillanders hoped might be persuaded to change her mind.
She hasn't. First she tells me she was disappointed about the format of community meetings, where Pathways primarily answered questions that had been pre-submitted. I ask if she has outstanding questions about the project.
"There's really nothing else I need to know. I know that it's basically a wet house," Bromley says, referencing the fact that residents aren’t required to be sober. "It's like enabling, where's the incentive to get clean and do better?"
Nina Parker, who’d also been at that lunch, told me at an earlier meeting that she hadn’t wavered in her opposition either.
"We have absolutely every support for his cause and his purpose, it's just that this isn't a suitable location because of the close proximity to the schools and our homes and our families, to a liquor store, to a park," Parker said at the time.
Not all neighbors oppose housing people experiencing homelessness near them. Jennifer Knoll is one of them. She works in the mental health field, sometimes with people experiencing homelessness.
"I don't see the level of risk that some of my neighbors see," Knoll tells me. She doesn't understand her neighbors' concerns that the Pathways development would bring more unhoused people to neighborhood parks and public spaces. "Why would they be on the streets if they have an apartment to go to?"
Knoll feels like she’s been shunned because of her support. She was dropped from Bromley and Parker’s Facebook group after she started her own neighborhood Facebook group, one where the conversation is far less confrontational and angry. Bromley says Knoll was dropped because she violated a written rule of the group by blocking administrators from seeing her post.
City officials had been wavering on the specific date they planned to revisit the exclusive negotiating agreement with Pathways. But they had finally said a vote was likely to happen Oct. 16.
Then, barely a week before the vote, Gillanders pulled the plug. ("Press pause" is how he put it in a news release).
He cited uncertainties in the political climate caused by an ongoing federal lawsuit over the lack of shelter space in Orange County, and several initiatives on the November ballot that could change the funding structure for supportive housing.
Less publicly, Gillanders concedes he didn't have enough votes on city council. Two council members are up for re-election (they're actually facing off, in a quirk of the city's recent change from at-large to by-district voting).
Pathways will reconsider the project in 2019.
More than 190 unhoused people died on Orange County streets in 2017. (In 2021, deaths of unhoused people in the county was more than double, some 386.) Gillanders says the housing his organization wants to build would save lives.
When I meet with him to talk about the decision, he seems less bummed than I expected.
"We didn't get into this with any kind of idea that this was going to be easy," he says. "We'll be fine. I'll be fine. But this isn't about us, this is about the people we're trying to help, and it's not fine for them."
A lot has happened since I first reported this story in 2018.
Despite a city's rule allowing no more than 12 unhoused people to sleep at churches, the encampment at St. Philip Benizi grew and grew. Eventually, it moved out onto the sidewalk. And then police cleared it in December 2019. Father Dennis says he made sure everyone there would have shelter.
Sheri Carter, one of the neighbors on the housing tour, sold her home and moved out of Fullerton. One of the reasons why, she says, was because homelessness had gotten so bad there.
Stephanie Bromley has continued to publicly oppose permanent supportive housing in her area.
Jennifer Knoll continues to work as a music therapist. Her Facebook group, West Fullerton Neighbors, has been archived.
Eve Lucas sold her van. And a local nonprofit found her a room in a house with three other formerly unhoused men. She hates it, actually. She wishes she had a place of her own.
Curtis Gamble continues to attend city council meetings in Fullerton and elsewhere. Recently, the council was deciding whether to make it harder for people to park RVs for long periods of time on city streets. Curtis told them to stop “bullying the homeless.” The council voted to ban RV parking anyway.
Catherine Reese has stopped posting her interviews with unhoused people on YouTube. She enabled comments on one of her final videos, and to my surprise, people ripped her to shreds. One person, who said they used to be homeless in Fullerton, used a sexist slur to address her and said, "you don't know sh— until you lived it.”
David Gillanders and Pathways of Hope have concentrated on making sure people have enough to eat during the pandemic. And in 2021, they helped distribute more than $10 million in rental assistance to make sure people didn't lose their homes and end up on the streets.
In a recent conversation with David, he said he learned a lot from the fiasco of his quest to build permanent supportive housing on that city lot in Fullerton.
For one thing, he learned to recognize when he's in danger of being used as a political shield. David said he felt played by the council members who weren't willing to stick their necks out and do the right thing, even if it was locally unpopular.
He also learned that a small, vocal group can majorly shift the political tradewinds.
This is the marathon of all marathons and it's not a sprint.
And he learned that fighting homelessness is a long game.
"Sadly, for people who live on the street and are dying every day, that seems like a really relaxed way to approach it. At the same time, it's really the only way you can approach it or else you'll drive yourself insane… this is the marathon of all marathons and it's not a sprint," he said.
David admitted that the whole saga left him in despair for a while, which is very different from what he had told me more than three years ago, when he pulled the project.
"I think it took me a little bit to realize how it affected me," he told me, "and so I think at the time, probably what I relayed to you is relief, right? No one's threatening to follow me to the parking lot. No one's recording my staff talking on the street to them about housing. ... That stuff's not happening. So a sense of relief is the first thing you feel, like, 'oh, I don't have to deal with this sh— anymore? Thank God.
"But you let some time go by and you drive by that site a couple more times, and you realize what could have been there, and then you go to the monthly memorial over at the Catholic Church for the [unhoused] people who died that month and you think, are these lives we could've saved?"
David said the battle reminded him of "how far we have to go to get to a place where housing is seen as something everyone should have."
He went on: "I think there are things you have to earn in this life. But I think it's odd that the two things that are probably the most important to ensuring you can live, housing and healthcare, are the things we're still asking people to compete over, to fight over, or to have to earn their way into."
There's one more update to this story. Last October, Fullerton's city council entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with a different developer to build affordable housing on the city-owned lot.
The neighbors made sure David and Pathways of Hope would not be part of the new plan. Because they didn’t trust him.
But that’s OK with David. He told me he didn’t care who built on that lot or what kind of housing it was, as long as it was for low-income people. "We don’t have enough housing, period," he said.
In the marathon that is solving homelessness, it feels like progress.
Reporter: Jill Replogle
Photographers: Kyle Grillot & Jill Replogle
Editors: Megan Garvey & Lisa Brenner
Illustration: Alborz Kamalizad