Saying 'nope' to hope

National | Government red tape has held up an urgently needed California rescue mission project for five years

Issue: "Walking the tightrope," Feb. 10, 2001

As Washington hands scrutinized TeamBush proposals to promote faith-based activity, the need for action was becoming apparent 3,000 miles away. In southern California, the Orange County Rescue Mission has been negotiating and working since 1996 to open a 192-bed transitional housing facility for homeless families on a closed military base-and now it is waiting. The Mission cannot complete work on the facility until the land is officially signed over to local authorities. The much-needed housing, which will be located at the vacant U.S. Marine Corps Tustin Air Facility, is part of an extensive community land-reuse development initiated by the city of Tustin. Orange County officials estimate that there are about 18,000 homeless and endangered women, men, and children in Orange County, but shelters provide a total of only 2,000 beds to accommodate them. Some among the poor, known as Anaheim's motel families, live a short walk away from Disneyland. The Orange County Rescue Mission, which operates two such shelters, offers counseling, health care, job training, and computer classes to struggling parents while they and their children still have a roof over their heads. The Mission's project, called "Village of Hope," includes plans for the top floors of two Marine barracks to be refurbished as living quarters. The lower floors will be redesigned for medical and dental offices and vocational training. One new building will house a technology center, a computer education center, and a day care center. Another will contain a dining facility, administrative offices, a warehouse, and an auditorium. The Village of Hope project is specifically planned to assist single parents with children. Orange County Mission President Jim Palmer said, "There is nowhere else for them to go in Orange County, and a single man with kids has to be split up from his children. Our main emphasis is to keep families intact. After waiting for the last five years, the time to move forward is now. We are at risk of losing over $3 million dollars if we don't break ground on this project immediately." Although the Mission has already begun the work of transforming the empty barracks into attractive and comfortable accommodations for single parents and children, and has raised most of the $17 million needed to complete the plan, the project remains in limbo. Despite initial agreements, the Department of the Navy has tangled the property transfer in seemingly endless red tape. The process of cleaning up toxic spills and removing contaminated soil, as required by the terms of the transfer agreement, has also gone very slowly. The Navy has claimed that the land transfer agreement presented by the city of Tustin may not provide sufficient jobs to satisfy federal legal requirements for base transfers. The city of Tustin counters that the legal requirements have, in fact, been met. The reuse plan will create 24,000 permanent new jobs, while creating thousands of temporary construction jobs during the implementation process. But in recent months the base transfer has become further complicated by infighting between two local school districts, both of which are seeking land for school expansion. Lawsuits are pending. Overall, big-time bureaucracy, rather than evil intent, appears to be the culprit. But the slow pace has left poor families dangling and a once-tidy base, with two historic blimp hangars, heading toward decay. Weeds now choke the landscape. Water has been turned off since 1999. Upkeep of the 1,600 acres, which have on them 1,500 empty houses, is the U.S. Navy's responsibility, but the site continues to deteriorate. Besides the Village of Hope, the land transfer will also provide 4,600 housing units, 15 percent of which will be available at prices affordable by poor working individuals; such homes are hard to find in Orange County. Three public schools, a Sheriff's Law Enforcement Training center, an abused children's care facility, and recreational area are among several other programs included in the land-use plan. The Orange County Rescue Mission's portion of the base, although relatively small in area, is clearly the most urgently needed-but try telling that to the Navy. Maybe the White House can.

-Lela Gilbert is writing a book about the Orange County Rescue Mission's faith-based care for homeless persons

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