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Housing for mentally ill homeless women draws heated Anaheim response

Grandma’s House of Hope, a nonprofit started by a woman who was once homeless to serve those currently homeless, wants to turn a large home in the historic Anaheim Colony district into a transitional living facility for more than a dozen mentally ill homeless women.

It seems ideal to Grandma’s House of Hope founder Je’Net Kreitner for a program her organization operates under a contract with the Orange County Health Care Agency to help women with what is described as severe and persistent mental illness. The home in the 600 block of North West Street would serve as bridge housing where they could live safely, gain stability and transition into other more permanent housing.

Except, homeowners who live near the two-story house oppose Kreitner’s plan.

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A huge outcry prompted the city’s Planning Commission in August to deny the conditional use permit Grandma’s House of Hope needs, ignoring a thumbs-up recommendation by city staff who had reviewed a proposal for a larger, 20-bed operation at the same site.

Grandma’s House of Hope operates 10 homes in Anaheim. Kreitner said it was the first time in 17 years that the city had denied the nonprofit a conditional use permit. But there was something different about the application this time around: It specified that the West Street home would be for women with severe and persistent mental health issues, the population that a contract with the county calls for Grandma’s House of Hope to serve in this particular housing program.

Now, the contested plan moves to the Anaheim City Council on Tuesday, Oct. 26. The council will be considering an appeal on behalf of Grandma’s House of Hope to allow a downsized version that reduced the number of residents to 15, along with a live-in house manager.

Given the reaction at an informal community meeting hosted last week by Councilman Jose F. Moreno and attended by about 150 residents from the surrounding neighborhood, there remains little grassroots support to accept such a project of any size. Presentations and good neighbor assurances by Kreitner and the nonprofit’s housing director – no alcohol, no drugs, no loud or profane music, no unapproved visitors, no hanging around in the neighborhood – did not change minds.

Yard signs on lawns declare, “Preserve our Westmont-Colony Neighborhoods … No on the Conditional Use Permit …”

The backlash from the public comes at a time when there appears to be more political will to get people off the streets, and a windfall in state and federal dollars to do it. But still, the question looms: How to help broken people rebuild their lives and reintegrate into society when other members of a community don’t want them nearby, for reasons that are a mix of legitimate concern and wild speculation.

Near the end of the 90-minute discussion on the conditional use permit, Moreno posed the question, “So what do we do?”

Multiple voices shot back their unequivocal answer: “Deny it!”

Thanks, but no

For Dorothy Clay Ranalli, born and raised in the Anaheim Colony district, there is another answer: Approve it. To her, it comes down to overcoming fear. Ranalli, 84, was one of the few among her neighbors who did not raise her arm when someone in the audience gathered inside a church gymnasium called for a show of hands opposed to the Grandma’s House of Hope proposal.

“Nobody wants them in their neighborhood – that’s always the story,” Ranalli said, recalling a similar fight decades ago over a home for unwed mothers that she felt was unwarranted.

“I don’t worry about people in these homes. I worry about people on the street. But others are scared.”

The two-story house in question sits on a nearly 30,000-square-foot corner lot – eight bedrooms and 11 baths, a backyard outfitted with a swimming pool, exercise room, basketball/badminton court and patio with a barbecue area. Security gates, fencing and landscaping.

The county, under a five-year, nearly $5 million contract, is providing the funding to house the women, along with the cost of supportive services to help them transition into more independent living. Besides a few staff members there during the day, a successful client from a Grandma’s House of Hope program, with demonstrated leadership skills and training, would live on-site and supervise at night. The residents would all be engaged in counseling at mental health clinics and, if medication is prescribed, required to take it, Kreitner said.

But many of those against the housing proposal argued that the west Anaheim area where they live, shop and send their kids to school already has too many community care-type facilities, including sober living homes, which have wreaked havoc in other neighborhoods around the county. Local officials have fought in court to wrest more regulatory control from the state.

Homeowner Shelly Nichols, who lives on West Pioneer Drive, up the street from the contested house, pointed out the number of places just along her daily morning walk that are single-family homes being used for businesses that include several recovery homes. It seems like too many to Nichols and her neighbors.

“We are saturated.”

Still, Nichols prefaced her remarks with a thank you to Kreitner for the work Grandma’s House of Hope has done for those in need.

“There’s no question about where your heart is,” Nichols said, adding that she did not want opposition to the project to be “misinterpreted as, ‘We don’t care.’”

Second chance

Kreitner started Grandma’s House of Hope in 2004, about a decade after she and her young son were rescued from homelessness through the kindness of others. She serves as chief executive officer. In 2014, Kreitner’s personal story brought tears to people’s eyes when she was honored with the Outstanding Founder award at the annual National Philanthropy Day celebration.

More than two-thirds of the homeless women being served in Grandma’s House of Hope bridge housing at another site are over 40, with many ranging in age from 55 to 75. The owner of the West Street property is in full support of the proposal, which has been working its way through the city’s planning process for more than a year. City staff who reviewed the plan for the house recommended approval.

That’s why, back on Aug. 30, when the Planning Commission took up Kreitner’s request for the conditional use permit, she figured it was a definite go. Instead, the six-member panel unanimously said, “No.”

Kreitner came away stung by the planning commission’s negative vote: “We just got blindsided by all these angry people showing up.”

Dozens of neighboring homeowners and residents came to that planning commission meeting. They also submitted petitions with about 300 signatures and multiple emails. The opposition included former mayor and current state legislator Tom Daly, D-Anaheim, who represents the 69th Assembly District. Daly and his wife, Debra Trabattoni Daly, sent an email asking that the conditional use permit be denied.

“This is simply wrong to do in a neighborhood,” the Dalys’ email reads in part, “especially to those potentially most impacted by such a large shelter operation.”

Other emails cited worries about noise, traffic and on-street parking problems, sewer system overload. And reduced property values.

Homeowners feared the possibility of unsupervised Grandma’s House of Hope residents wandering the neighborhood, disturbing the peace.

One man wrote that he worried about his wife and grandchildren being home alone next door: “I have worked in the past thru our local church with individuals with these challenges and will not want my family to be exposed to this in our back yard.”

Another homeowner, who said his family has lived there for 56 years, raised questions about outdoor group meetings. “I don’t want my mom, and our neighbors, exposed to the possible screaming, yelling and violence that can happen at these meetings.”

On Tuesday, Kreitner hopes the city council’s vote will be the first step toward countering what she believes are stereotypes about a misunderstood population.

“We always overcome these concerns in the first six months we’re there,” she said. “None of the nightmarish visions come true.”


Source: Orange County Register

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