By Mark Gutglueck
Nearly five months after the San Bernardino City Council gave and then rescinded its approval of Mary’s Village, a transitional housing project for homeless men, the six members of the city council present to vote this week gave a unanimous final go-ahead to the undertaking.
Crucial to the passage was the absence of councilman John Valdivia, who inveighed against the project so successfully this summer that he undid the initial approval. Without Valdivia present, the council found itself caught in the spirit of Christmas charity. Thus incined, it gave no mind or homage to the arguments that Valdvivia and his council colleagues Henry Nickel and Bessine Richards had proferred earlier this year to the effect that the lodging where homeless men would be welcomed for an extended stay might prove to be a magnet for even larger numbers of homeless to flock to San Bernardino.
At the July 18 meeting when the project was initially considered, Councilman Henry Nickel had promulgated the philosophy that past efforts toward assisting the indigent, itinerant, displaced and penurious had made only the shallowest of inroads on the problem, squandered taxpayer money and invited other transients and vagrants into the county seat, which, according to official nose counts carried out by county officials on an annual basis in compliance with a federal mandate, hosts 40 percent of the county’s dispossessed while composing ten percent of the county’s overall population. Nickel characterized the proposed Mary’s Village as yet another in a string of haphazard gestures toward dealing with the homeless problem that was neither coordinated nor part of an overall strategy.
On July 18, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard had also questioned the location selected for the home, which is in the Third Ward. She indicated during the discussion that she would vote against the project because of that consideration. “The people that are in support of it don’t live there,” she said, adding that the city’s most intensive commercial area is within the Third Ward and that putting a use that will serve as a magnet for the homeless so close to the tax revenue producing assets in the city was unwise.
Absent from the meeting on July 18 was councilman John Valdivia, whose district was to host the transitional housing project for homeless men, where they would have received counseling, job training, help overcoming drug and alcohol problems and other kinds of aid toward the goal of becoming productive citizens, and the project was given first reading, tentative approval on a 4-2 vote.
Previewed by the city’s planning division manager, Oliver Mujica, who supported the project along with other city staff, as a “comprehensive center for homeless men on an 11-acre project site… intended to offer housing, job training and other services to up to 115 homeless men, Mary’s Village had as its proponent Mary’s Mercy Center, which long ago established two similar facilities for homeless, battered, troubled or dislocated women and children in San Bernardino, one called Veronica’s Home of Mercy and another called Mary’s Mercy Table, which are about a mile-and-a-half away from the proposed site Walnut Street.
Mary’s Mercy Centers are funded through the Arrowhead United Way, the City of San Bernardino’s pass-through of federal Community Development Block Grants and emergency shelter grants, Catholic Healthcare West, the San Bernardino Community Foundation, the S. L. Gimbel Foundation, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, a Diocese of San Bernardino Sacrificial Giving Grant, the City of San Bernardino Economic Development Agency, the Crestwood Corporation and the San Manuel Mission Band of Indians.
On August 1, the project came back for a second consideration by the council, which by law has to reconfirm all development projects and ordinances with what is called a “second reading.” Present that evening was Valdivia. Valdivia asserted that Mary’s Village would be bad for residents and businesses in his ward. “This item certainly does impact upon Third Ward neighborhoods… affecting the quality of life,” Valdivia intoned. “At the very outset I would like to suggest the quality of life with this project would be impacting local neighborhoods… impacting neighborhoods, residents and certainly businesses in the Third Ward, specifically along the Mt. Vernon and Walnut Corridor. When I do a simple calculation of the impact to the immediate area on the quality of life issue, my constant refrain is this does have an impact on public safety.”
After Valdivia allowed Nickel and Richard to reiterate their earlier expressed objections, he came out in full force against the project, saying, “This is not equitable. It is not equitable to the other hardworking taxpayers in the community that have been burdened.” He said the project was good neither for the city as a whole nor the Third Ward. “Third Ward residents… have already been burdened with one less fire station that closed in October of 2014,” he said, decrying “the idea that more residents, 118 residents, may have the potential of calling 911 for services and impacting the other area residents that are not in favor of this. [That] they’re going to have to wait additional time for a fire truck or police personnel to respond to their medical or police issue is disturbing.”
Valdivia raised the specter of an effective program serving to attract other homeless people. “This certainly will have a more inviting welcoming effect for other homeless individuals in our region to come to have resources in our community,” Valdivia said, going on to enunciate his belief that the project did not represent a robust boost to the local economy. “The fourth point is: What about true rooftops?” Valdivia said. “I don’t consider this build a true rooftop. When I look at the expansive acreage of about ten acres of land, imagine the possibilities for true rooftops to be built. We have this presupposed idea that rooftops would add to the economic resurgence of this community. This mammoth rooftop does not address my concerns on the economic development of this city. It doesn’t provide any economic growth opportunities or job creations and it certainly does not coincide with my priorities on economic development. I cannot support this. This is inconsistent and incompatible with the needs of the community.”
Council members Fred Shorett, Virginia Marquez and Jim Mulvihill took issue with Valdivia’s characterizations and propounded countervailing arguments to the effect that the project represented an ideal solution to a substantial portion of the homeless problem besetting the city.
Councilman Mulvihill said, “Homelessness is a very touchy issue in our city, but this is not temporary housing. This is not enabling. This is not a soup kitchen. This is a relatively long term solution to the problem. It is taking people in, establishing some stability in their lives, and then providing case management to take care of the issues that created the chronic homelessness. We’re not dealing with the short term. We’re dealing with chronic homelessness, people who have addictions, people with psychotic issues or combinations of the two. It has been estimated at the national level that the cost of homelessness on local jurisdictions is anywhere from $35,000 to $125,000 [per individual]. This is not an enabling process. It is a process to cure the situation.”
At that point, councilman Benito Barrios represented the swing vote with regard to the fate of the project, and a repetition of his vote from two weeks previous was needed to keep the project on track for final approval. With a degree of dramatic flair, Barrios then reversed himself, consigning the project approval to a 3-4 defeat. Widely remarked at the time was Barrios’ tendency to vote in lockstep with Valdivia, with one observer remarking that Valdivia possesses a Svengali-like hold on Barrios and a command over his voting patterns.
Indeed, when an effort to resurrect the project was mounted in September, Barrios again signaled his unwillingness to break with Valdivia and that move died.
On December 5, however, Michael Hein, the director of Mary’s Mercy Center, reapplied for project approval and the project was reintroduced. At that time, many of those who had expressed support of the project reemerged, including Terry Kent, a board member with Mary’s Mercy Center; Father Manuel Cardoza; Ray Osborne, the executive director of HomeAid Inland Empire; Ron Drews, of the Central City Lutheran Mission; John Morrissey, a board member of Mary’s Mercy Center; Kent Paxton; Carlos Rodriguez; Pastor Joshua Beckley; the Reverend Leonard DePasquale; Kathleen McDonnell of Saint Benradine’s Hospital/ Dignity Health; Father Mike Barry; Sandi Roberts; Shaana Boehm; M. Victoria Bianci; Aaron Cox; and Marsha Holguin.
Just as his vote reversal in August knelled the death, or seeming death, of the project, it would be Barrios’ second vote reversal, this time running contrary to Valdivia, that garnered for the project tentative approval on December 5. At that time, the project passed muster by the bare majority of 4-3, with Berrios, Mulvihill, Shorett and Marquez in favor and Nickel, Richard and Valdivia dissenting.
On December 19, when the project was due for a second reading, Valdivia was not present, and did not have the opportunity to wheedle, cajole or browbeat his colleagues. When it came down to a vote, both Richard and Nickel bowed to the inevitable and the project was given a 6-0 approval.
That vote confirmed changing the general plan land use designation on the 11.02 acres from residential urban to residential medium and granted a development code amendment for a four phase development. Phase I will encompass approximately 2.92 acres of the project and includes the construction of four single-story residential buildings containing approximately 7,000 square feet each that will accommodate up to eighty-five residents. These buildings will include common kitchen, dining and living areas, training rooms, and administrative offices. Phase 2 will encompass approximately 2.91 acres of the project and includes the development of approximately 17,000 square feet of medical, administrative, and educational space in up to three buildings. Phase 3 will encompass approximately 3.05 acres of the project and envisions the construction of up to fifteen (15) rent-subsidized housing units for graduates of Mary’s Village programs. Finally, Phase 4 will encompass approximately 2.14 acres of the project for the future construction of two buildings containing up to a combined total of approximately 20,000 square feet to house support/community services and a chapel. According to a staff report, “The project consists of the development of a men’s residential complex that will provide comprehensive on-site medical, behavioral health, training and support services that offer a healthy alternative to substance abuse, mental illness or homelessness.”
By Mark Gutglueck