ANAHEIM, Calif. – Diana Gonzalez lives in an encampment of grimy tents and overstuffed shopping carts in an alley less than three miles from Disneyland. Her life is a world apart from the fairy tales of the Happiest Place on Earth.
For Gonzalez, mundane details such as the hours of the public restrooms at the community park down the street are obsessions necessary for survival.
"You've gotta smell sometimes because it's so cold," Gonzalez said, shivering in the chilly night air. "Where are you gonna shower if the bathrooms are closed? Where are you going to go the bathroom? Where are we supposed to go?"
A recently formed interfaith group called the Poverty Task Force hopes to answer those questions as it fights homelessness in Anaheim, a city that is quietly wrestling with a street population rarely seen by the millions of tourists who flock to Disney's resort each year.
Anaheim's diverse churches and mosques have long worked together informally to fill the gaps with emergency shelter and food, but each realized they were only providing temporary fixes. Their faith required more, said Deacon Doug Cook, a member of the coalition from San Antonio de Padua Church.
"We're not even scratching the surface of the city and I really think it needs to be faith-based. It's what we're about," he said. "How many churches are there in Anaheim? There's hundreds and you're looking at about 15 of us on the Poverty Task Force. We're probably 10 percent or less. What if we had the other 90 percent? Think what we could do."
The congregations have their work cut out for them.
The city's humming tourism industry creates an abundance of low-wage jobs that keep many residents just a medical bill or car repair away from eviction in one of the most expensive rental markets in the nation, said Bob Murphy, general manager for American Family Housing, a nonprofit that runs several homeless programs.
Seventy percent of Orange County's homeless are women and children, a fact reflected in last year's HBO documentary series "Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County." Total homelessness has jumped 600 percent since 1989, with between 21,000 and 35,000 people on the streets, according to statistics compiled by the interfaith group based on homeless counts and county tracking systems.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Orange County is $1,350 a month, which requires an income of $25 an hour — and most people make half that, Murphy said.
"People see Orange County as beaches and wealth, and I think a lot of what we're doing is about educating the public," said Kerry Gallagher, an organizer with the Orange County Congregation Community Organization. "A lot of people from Orange County don't want to admit it because it will tarnish our image. If we respond, we are recognizing our problem."
That attitude is something project leaders are bracing for as they ramp up publicity for their ideas in the coming weeks. Leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Unitarian congregations that make up the task force have used their pulpits to preach about the need for homeless services in the city. Earlier this month, they launched a petition drive before a March 8 presentation to the newly elected city council.
And the task force's members expect to meet resistance: The linchpin of their plan is a massive, mall-style building that would act as a regional hub for the homeless, offering all the services they need under one roof.
The five-year strategy calls for 14 other recommendations, including a police team trained in homeless outreach, a homeless census and a "safe zone" for things such as soup lines and portable toilets. The ideas are all meant to dovetail with Orange County's current plan, which began in 2008 with the goal of ending homelessness in a decade.
Lorri Galloway, a longtime city council member who also runs a home for abused and homeless women, predicts an uphill political battle.
"It's definitely not going to be a slam dunk ... ," she said. "There will be concerns by people, by business people, that this would change the image of the Happiest Place on Earth."
The group also faces significant financial obstacles. Even though the task force hopes to pay for most of the project with federal grants and nonprofit funding, the city's involvement could be limited by its own financial woes.
The city is running a $2 million budget gap and made cuts to its homeless outreach staffing, said Bob Cerince, a city staff analyst who has worked closely with the interfaith group.
Another challenge will be finding an uncontested site for the proposed service center in a county where land values are sky-high.
"Everything is really, really up in the air," he said. "Where do you put this thing and how do you develop community support?"
The coalition is willing to do what it takes to create that momentum, said Cook, who is leading efforts at San Antonio de Padua Church in Anaheim Hills, one of the ritziest neighborhoods in the 350,000-person city.
His 17,000-member Roman Catholic church has been active in homeless outreach for more than two decades, finding permanent housing for 1,875 families by helping with rental deposits, furnishings, utility payments and mentoring.
The church recently focused on homeless during its weekend Masses and collected hundreds of signatures to present to the council next month.
Still, Cook said his church's contribution is part of a long-standing piecemeal approach that inevitably means people fall through the cracks. Now the trick will be convincing the council, and the community, to try a different way, he said.
"Band Aids are great, we need them and I'm not knocking them. But I would like to find a way that those people don't have to go to La Palma Park and get food," Cook said. "I believe a 'no' is only a slow 'yes.' When you get opposition, you just keep working."
Anaheim Poverty Task Force: http://anaheimptf.org/
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