After years of discussion over "carrots," "sticks" and just about every combination thereof, the Costa Mesa City Council's decision to move forward the development of permanent supportive housing for the city's homeless population came as a "much needed, much prayed for golden carrot," as one local homeless advocate put it.
In a 4-0 vote Tuesday, the council chose Orange County-based Mercy House Living Centers who will work in partnership with San Diego-based nonprofit Wakeland Housing to lead the charge in finding a possible site for supportive housing, then operating the development once it's established.
Mayor Jim Righeimer recused him self from the vote because he sits on Mercy House's board.
Officials said the move was a step in the right direction in Costa Mesa's ongoing — and at times controversial — efforts to take homeless people off its streets.
Last year, for example, then-Mayor Eric Bever took a hard stance against service providers, saying that they attract homeless people from other cities and calling for the investigation of two prominent local nonprofits.
Since then the city has explored various alternatives to help the city's chronically homeless population and, on the "stick" side of things, discourage them from setting up camp in public areas.
"I believe that a Mercy House project will serve the city of Costa Mesa well," said Churches Consortium Director Becks Heyhoe, who frequently works with homeless service providers. "Home is on the way."
Added Councilwoman Wendy Leece: "It's a great moment in our history to take a big step, as Ms. Heyhoe said, to offer the big carrot."
Mercy House Executive Director Larry Haynes thanked the council for their leadership on getting the project going.
Wednesday, he said that as a Costa Mesa resident, "I'm proud of my city. I think this is a critical step toward ending Costa Mesa's chronic homelessness."
He added that the project could act as a kind of "catalyst" for changing the way cities throughout the county deal with homelessness.
While choosing developers was certainly a milestone, there are still a number of boxes to check before viable long-term supportive housing for Costa Mesans can become a reality, Muriel Ullman, a city housing consultant who has worked extensively on homeless issues, said Wednesday.
First, the city and the chosen organizations must "hammer out" a pre-development deal to ensure that the city takes full advantage of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds.
The city must allocate about $411,000 in funds from HUD by June, or risk losing access to it, she said, so time is of the essence. Another approximately $150,000 could also come from HUD. County mental health services money will also be used for the development.
The city itself set aside about $500,000 from its general fund for a potential project last year, Ullman said.
Meanwhile, she said, staff and Mercy House will work on a site selection process.
She said "different strategies" are on the table, such as the possible purchase of a problematic motel for redevelopment into supportive housing.
That route, she said, would "kill two birds with one stone," because the city has also been looking at ways of cleaning up its more troubled motels.
Another strategy might involve a number of units scattered throughout the city — although finding acceptable sites within existing residential neighborhoods may prove a challenge, Ullman said.
Right now, the project would include up to about 50 units.