Support for LAist comes from
We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected
Podcasts Imperfect Paradise Imperfect Paradise S1
Home is Life: Episode 1
Imperfect Paradise
Episode 1
20:05
Home is Life: Episode 1
David Gillanders wants to build housing for people experiencing homelessness in Orange County. When his idea hits more opposition than expected, city officials send him out to try to win over the neighborhood. This LAist Studios podcast is sponsored by BetterHelp and our listeners get 10% off their first month of online therapy at BetterHelp.com/LAist This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Jill Replogle:

A warning that the first part of this episode involves vulgar language and violence, and includes some very disturbing audio.

On the evening of July 5, 2011, a shirtless man with long, red hair and a scraggly beard was wandering around downtown Fullerton. Fullerton is a small, suburban city in Orange County, California.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

The man's name was Kelly Thomas. He was 37, and he had been living on the streets for a long time. He also had a mental illness ó he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It had just gotten dark and Kelly was in the parking lot behind a local rock ní roll bar. The manager of the bar saw Kelly around a lot. She later told a police investigator that he was known as ìCrazy Kelly.î She said he looked like Jesus. That night, the manager called the police on Kelly. She said she saw him looking into the windows of cars in the parking lot. Eleven minutes later, two Fullerton police officers showed up and confronted Kelly at the bus station next door.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

What happened next was recorded by a nearby security camera and later it was synced up with the officer's recording devices.

[ambient noise from audio recording]

The footage is grainy. It shows Kelly standing on the sidewalk, arms crossed, occasionally shifting his feet. One of the officers twirls his baton in his hand, and then leaned casually against the patrol car.

Police Officer:

[audio recording] Do you have anything in your backpack that's got your name on it?

Kelly Thomas:

[audio recording] No, why. Did you want to search it and stuff?

Police Officer:

[audio recording] If you don't mind. We just gotta figure out your name so we can go about our business and you can go to sleep. That's all.

Jill Replogle:

The second officer asks Kelly to sit down on the curb. Kelly takes off his backpack and sits down.The first officer picks up the backpack, and in the audio, you hear him rifling through some papers. He finds some mail addressed to a man named Ronny. The officer asks Kelly if that's his name.

Police Officer:

[audio recording] Is it Ronny? No? So we should take you for having somebody else's mail?

Jill Replogle:

The officer continues looking through Kelly's backpack. In the meantime, Kelly and the second officer start arguing.

Police Officer:

[audio recording] Put your hands on your fucking kneesÖ

Jill Replogle:

It's hard to hear but the officer says to Kelly, "See my fists?"

ìYeah,î Kelly says, ìwhat about em?î

ìThey're getting ready to fuck you up,î the officer replies.

Kelly Thomas:

[audio recording] Start punchiní, dude.

Police Officer:

[audio recording] Put your fucking hands on your knees.

Jill Replogle:

The officer pushes Kelly's shoulder. Kelly stands up and the officer grips his baton with both hands.The other officer appears in the camera screen and hits Kelly in the leg with his baton. The second officer also takes a swing at Kelly. Then they chase Kelly offscreen. Thirty seconds later, the camera shows both officers on top of Kelly, trying to pin his arms behind his back.

Kelly Thomas:

[audio recording] Ok, fuck dude, ok. I'm sorry, dude. I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

Police Officer:

[audio recording] Put your hands behind your back. Put your hands behind your back.

Kelly Thomas:

[audio recording] Ok, dude. I can't. Ö

Jill Replogle:

Kelly apologizes repeatedly. Then he starts saying, over and over, that he can't breathe.

Kelly Thomas:

[audio recording] Ok, I can't breathe, dude. I can't breathe, dude.

Police Officer:

[audio recording] Hands on your back.

Kelly Thomas:

[audio recording] Ok. I can't breathe. I can't breathe, sir. I can't fucking breathe! Please. I'm sorry. I'm sorry dude.

Jill Replogle:

Another Fullerton police cruiser pulls up and two more officers jump out and try to restrain Kelly. It's hard to see what happens next, but you can hear it. One of the newly arrived officers knees Kelly in the head. Then tases him. And then he strikes Kelly in the face with the butt of his Taser. Later, this officer will say that he quote "probably just smashed his face to hell."

[sounds of tasing and Kelly struggling]

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

During the struggle, Kelly calls out repeatedly for his Dad. Kelly stops struggling. Paramedics arrive to take Kelly to the hospital. And five days later, he dies.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

The Orange County coroner would later say that the cause of death was a lack of oxygen to Kelly's brain Ö as the result of compression on his chest and traumatic injuries to his head and face. Kelly had no weapon. He had no drugs or alcohol in his system. None of the officers involved were convicted of a crime. [short pause] The part of Kelly Thomas's story that got the most attention, understandably, was the police violence. What is less examined is how and why Kelly was living on the streets in the first place.

Kelly Thomas was one of some seven thousand unhoused people in Orange County at the time. And that's what this story is about.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

People living on the streets are more likely to face violence, in general, than people who have homes. People on the streets die on average about 20 years younger than people who have homes. They die from lack of health care. Untreated addictions. Vigilantes. Unsafe living conditions. It is dangerous to be homeless, especially in Orange County. A record 386 unhoused people died in Orange County in 2021. That's according to a priest in Fullerton who keeps track and publishes their names on a local news site. Even though Orange County's unhoused population is about one-tenth the size of neighboring Los Angeles County, statistically, it is twice as deadly to live on the streets here as it is in L.A. This ... in the home of the Happiest Place on Earth, the original Real Housewives, and some of the priciest beachfront property in the world. And yet, people who study homelessness, who work with people on the streets every day, agree that there is a single best solution to this problem, and it seems kind of obvious ó housing. And in the case of someone like Kelly, something called ìpermanent supportive housing.î It's a place of one's own, like an apartment unit, that also comes with support services, like mental health therapy, addiction treatment and job counseling. But ñ at least in Orange County ñ it is very hard to build this kind of housing. And the biggest obstacle isnít money, or a lack of land, or a lack of developers that want to build itÖ. itís us.

Orange County (Fullerton) Residents:

[Fullerton City Council sound bites] I don't want 80 people who need security and mental health services living this close to my neighborhood.

We have enough going on with the homeless that are leaving their needles, their drugs, their messes.

We're not going to just stand by and watch you come in and ruin our neighborhood more and let this come in. We will sue you if someone does not happen to make this, it will not happen [applause] .... [fade out]

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

I'm Jill Replogle and this is Imperfect Paradise from LAist Studios. This season is called Home is Life. It's the story of the fight to build housing for people experiencing homelessness in the very city where Kelly Thomas was killed.It's the story of where to house people living on the streets ó and really, whether to do it at all?

[break]

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

Iím a reporter at KPCC in Los Angeles, and back in 2018, I followed a man named David Gillanders as he tried to get approval to build an apartment complex in Fullerton for formerly unhoused people. The story ran as a series on the radio. By the way, our newsroom uses the term ìUnhousedî instead of homeless, because people consider all kinds of places their home. But you'll hear people use both terms in this story. Anyway, I was interested in following Davidís quest because, at the time, it seemed like everybody in Orange County was talking about homelessness. There was a big lawsuit going on over the lack of emergency shelter and housing. And I wondered, when it came down to an actual project, in a real place, whether Orange County residents would support it. [short pause]

The first time I meet David, itís a hot, summer day in 2018. Weíre standing in a vacant lot in Fullerton where he hopes, one day, to build homes for 80 of the areaís chronically unhoused residents.

David Gillanders:

Well, right now it's a city yard. So there's all kinds of construction materials, trucks Ö

Jill Replogle:

He has the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up. And I can see his forearms are covered in tattoos. One near his left elbow crease, is a set of keys attached to a tag inscribed with the phrase "Home is life." The phrase speaks to his job working with unhoused people. But also to his own life.

David grew up in north Orange County, where Fullerton is. His parents split when he was 12. After that, his mom had a hard time paying rent.

David Gillanders:

Where we would get three day notices, where the rent was late every month, where, you know, we would be on the verge of trying to find a new place all the time where my mom, we had to couch surf for a long time so my mom could just save the money to get us into an apartment. Like, that stuff was all very real for me.

Jill Replogle:

As a teen, David fell in love with punk music, especially the band Jawbreaker. [Jawbreaker music plays] He became a vegan. He protested against corporate greed. And, he had his first conversations with people living on the streets, outside of punk shows in LA. He learned that their story wasn't so different from his own. After high school, David went into the music industry. But it just wasn't fulfilling. So he ended up becoming a social worker ñ trying to keep people from becoming homeless. A few years and a few jobs later, he got a call. Would David be interested in a position as executive director of a non-profit in Fullerton.

David Gillanders:

Recruiter calls me one day and says, ëHi, Iím such and such recruiter and I have a position you might be interested in. Itís executive director of a nonprofit in Fullerton, I said, ëIs it Pathways of Hope? And she goes yep and I go, ëperfect I want it, like, when do I interview.í

Jill Replogle:

Pathway of Hope was founded in Fullerton in 1975. Its mission is to provide food and shelter to low-income people in the city and surrounding area. People in Fullerton LOVE Pathways of Hope. Many of them volunteer to sort through canned vegetables at its food bank and donate Lego sets and stuffed animals for its holiday toy drive. In David's job interview, he proposed shifting the organization's mission to focus more on long-term solutions, like housing. Because, even though donating toys and volunteering in soup kitchens helps people get through the day ó and it makes us feel good ó it's kinda just putting a bandaid on the real problem.

David Gillanders:

Yes, handing out toys to families matters. Yes, everyoneís got to eat. Ö But itís literally homelessness. Itís not souplessness, you know what I mean. Itís not clotheslessness, Itís not showerlessness. Itís homelessness..ÖDemonstrate for me how homelessness is ended with anything other than a set of keys, a lease and a place to call home.

Jill Replogle:

In other words, Home is Life. -- David didn't know Kelly Thomas. But he works with people like Kelly often. He thinks if Kelly had had a place to live ñ with the support he needed to manage his mental health problems, Kelly's life might've had a very different outcome.

David Gillanders:

I would just separate out for a second what happened that night from what Kelly Thomas needed the entire time he was homeless, right. What led up to that circumstance? What made it possible so that Kelly was still homeless, and still not taking proper medication and not having the care he needed to be to be safe and to be healthier than then he was at the time?

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

David got the job, and in the spring of 2018, he took his permanent supportive housing idea to city officials. AndÖ they were interested! At the time, a group of cities in Orange County was putting together a plan to build enough permanent supportive housing for every chronically unhoused person in the county. And they were asking all the cities ñ including Fullerton ñ to build their fair share. It seemed like David's proposal could be a good fit. They just needed to figure out where to build it.

[ambient sounds of trains in a vacant lot]

Jill Replogle:

So some city staffers brought David here, to see this vacant, city-owned lot where I first meet him. Itís a long, skinny triangle Ö bordered on one side by four sets of railroad tracks. And on the other by a busy street called Commonwealth Avenue. And across the street is this local institution called Kimmieís Coffee Cup. David thought it was a great location for permanent supportive housing. He envisions white stucco and red-tiled roofs ó to match the city's classic Southern California style. David told me it would be a long process to get anything built on the lot. He was going to need a bunch of city approvals and to get the financing in order. Heíd also have to apply for state and federal housing grants. But the first step ñ it was basically procedural. City officials drew up an exclusive negotiating agreement between Fullerton and Pathways of Hope. It said essentially that the city wouldn't sell the land to anyone else while they were negotiating. David didn't expect it to be controversial ñ neither did city officials, for that matter. Thatís after the break.

[break]

Jill Replogle:

The city council meeting to approve the agreement took place on June 5, 2018.

Mayor Doug Chaffee:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Good evening, it's my pleasure to call to order this meeting of the Fullerton City Council.

Jill Replogle:

I wasn't at the meeting but I watched it later on the city's website. Mayor Doug Chaffee starts the meeting. It's a full audience. Most of the people sitting in rows in tightly packed fold-up seats are there to speak up about David's project. Word has already spread around the Kimmie's Coffee Cup neighborhood about his plans.

Mayor Doug Chaffee:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Tonight before you for your consideration is an exclusive negotiation agreement between Pathways of Hope and the city of FullertonÖ

Jill Replogle:

Mayor Chaffee invites David to the podium to pitch the idea before the public weighed in. David is wearing a sport coat and a burgundy-colored dress shirt, his hair is slicked back. He looks serious, confident.

David Gillanders:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Everyone in this room wants a solution to homelessness. I believe that. I believe people want to see an end to homelessness in some way because it affects them. It affects them through community health. It affects all of us through tax burden. And I think this is the solution to resolve a lot of those issues...

Jill Replogle:

ìThose unhoused people you see downtown every day?î he says. ìWeíre going to house 80 of them.î

David Gillanders:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Those folks won't be there because we'll have them housed. They'll be formerly homeless at that point, not currently homeless. That's a big difference.

Mayor Doug Chaffee:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Thank you. We may ask you back for some questions, since you are the applicantÖ. May we have a speaker. Please identify yourself and come forward.

Stephanie Bromley:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Good evening council, my name is Stephanie Bromley. I live in what I like to call the Kimmie's Coffee Cup neighborhood. [duck under and fade out]

Jill Replogle:

Over the next hour and thirty-five minutes, fourteen people speak in favor of David' housing proposal.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Fullerton City Council Attendants:

[Fullerton City Council sound bites] If I was to become homeless in a couple of months, I would want to make sure that there was a place for me to go, and that's what Pathways is providing.

This isn't a sentence of declining property values and people wandering through your neighborhood. This is not a shelter. These are homes for people.

Jill Replogle:

Twenty-three people speak against it.

Fullerton City Council Attendants:

[Fullerton City Council sound bites] We have enough going on with the homeless that are leaving their needles, their drugs, their messes.

This is not against homeless, this is pro families. Think about us, think about our children.

I'm really going to fight this all the way.

We're not going to just stand by and watch you come in and ruin our neighborhood more and let you come in. We will sue you if something doesn't happen to make this, this will not happen [applause] .... [fade out]

Jill Replogle:

When it's council members' turn to speak, a couple of them propose moving forward with the exclusive negotiating agreement and then hashing out the details with David ó and the neighbors ó later. But ultimately, they vote three to two to postpone the agreement with Pathways. Council member Greg Seabourn gives David a task.

Greg Seabourn:

[Fullerton City Council sound bite] Frankly, itís dead in the water unless the neighbors are at least lukewarm supportive and right now, there's not a lukewarm support there. Pathways has been a great partner in the community. You guys do it right. I know that if this thing goes forward, youíd do a great job. Iím convinced of that, but you need to convince everyone else of that, too.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

Basically, if they were going to move forward with Davidís plan ó first he'd have to win over the neighbors. The council gives him four months to do it. Four months to convince the neighbors that having formerly unhoused people as neighbors ñ wonít ruin their property values; wonít make the neighborhood less safe; wonít mean even more people living on the streets.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

[fade up lot ambi]

Jill Replogle:

I meet up with David afterwards to see how he's feeling.

David Gillanders:

You know, Fullerton has very few parcels of land that will work. A lot of folks at the city council meeting were like, there's other places you could go, other places you can do this. The truth is, I've been over the map with the city staff, there are no other places to do this.

Jill Replogle:

David seems a little taken aback by the beating he took from some people who spoke at the meeting. But he also seems undaunted.

David Gillanders:

You know, I'm very confident, though, with that community education piece, with that dialogue with the community, we can overcome what the differences are and help people understand why this is a benefit, but also help us understand what's needed to be in this community and be neighbors with them, because we will be.

Jill Replogle:

But, a conversation he had with one of the neighbors after the meeting gave him pause.

David Gillanders:

You know, I introduced myself, I thought we had a good productive, you know, 10, 15 minutes of talking. But at the end of it, someone still said immediately, I won't support whatever this is. And that's, that's troubling to me, you know, thatís troubling.

[E. Scott Kelly music plays]

Jill Replogle:

And so a slightly defensive, but also optimistic, David starts planning out his campaign. Will he be able to win over the neighbors? And what happens if he canít? Not just for this project, but for solving homeleness period. Thatís coming up in Episode Two of Imperfect Paradise: ìHome is Life.î

Credits:

This season of Imperfect Paradise is written and reported by me, Jill Replogle. Emily Guerin is the senior producer, editor and fact-checker. Additional editing by Sophia Paliza-Carre, Suzanne Levy and Antonia Cereijido. Mixing and original music by E. Scott Kelly. Antonia Cereijido and Leo Gomez are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Special thanks to Voice of OC for their reporting on this story. Also thanks to Donald Paz, Ethan Ward, Tony Marcano, Maura Walz, Ross Brenneman and Megan Garvey. Our website, INSERT URL HERE, is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. They also created our branding. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including: Taylor Coffman, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. Imperfect Paradise is a production of LAist Studios.

1