Valdivia Emerges & Barrios Deserts To Put The Kibosh On SB Homeless Facility

The San Bernardino City Council this week reversed itself from its commitment two weeks ago to allow a Catholic-affiliated organization to establish a residential and educational facility to house and retrain up to 118 homeless men.
That reversal came on August 1 after councilman John Valdivia, in whose Third Ward the home was to be built and who was not in attendance at the July 18 city council meeting when the initial vote on the proposed project was cast, registered his objection to the proposal and he was joined by councilman Benito Barrios, who switched his July 18 vote of support to one of denial.
St. Mary’s House has already established two residential care facilities in San Bernardino, which serve homeless, battered, troubled or dislocated women and children. Those facilities are located proximate to one another about a mile-and-a-half from the location on Walnut Street between Pico Avenue and San Marcos Street where the organization was seeking to establish the men’s facility.
On July 18, the council voted 4-2, with council members Henry Nickel and Bessine Richard dissenting, to signal acceptance of the project, approving a subdivision of the property to accommodate four phases of building on the 11.02-acre site along with a conditional use permit to allow the facility to operate.
The project came back this week for a second reading of that approval, as is required for all projects, together with a general plan amendment and a development code amendment/zoning map amendment which were needed to allow the previous approval to become effective.
The city’s planning division manager, Oliver Mujica, essentially provided a reintroduction of the project proposal. Mujica said the project would be built in four phases, with the first consisting of improvements to 2.92 acres entailing four single story buildings of 7,000 square feet each accommodating up to 85 residents, including dining facilities and a common kitchen. This first phase would be completed, Mujica said, within two years of approval. A second phase 2.91 acres, Mujica said, would involve a single story building totaling 17,000 square feet to house medical and educational facilities for the residents. It would be completed within three years. The third phase, covering 3.05 acres, would provide 15 subsidized housing, two-occupant rental units accommodating 30 residents. It would be completed within four years, Mujica said. The fourth and final 2.14-acre phase, Mujica said, would consist of two single story buildings totaling 20,000 square feet and embody a support services facility and a chapel. It would be completed within five years. It was implied that there would be residences for three employee caretakers on the site, as well.
The property is located, Mujica said, on property currently zoned urban residential near both existing industrial and residential urban zones, such that the zoning, general plan and development code amendments were required because of the conversion of the property to a residential social service zone that would involve an increase in density envisioned on property that would otherwise be host to approximately four single family dwelling units per acre. Mujica said facility would employ approximately 39 staff members.
Mujica repeated his recommendation offered at the July 18 meeting that the project be approved.
“This is not an overnight stay kind of place,” said Mujica. “It is not a soup kitchen. It is a place where those who need can come here, get assimilated back to society, learn how to take care of themselves and slowly over a 12 to 18 month period learn to be back on their feet again.”
After Mayor Carey Davis deferred to Valdivia, as both mayor pro tem and the councilman in whose district the project was proposed, to moderate the council’s discussion, Valdivia initially sought to provide an appearance of non-commitment with regard to the project, making no direct or overt indication of his opposition to the project, though there were subtle suggestions he had concerns about it when he said, “This item certainly does impact upon Third Ward neighborhoods… affecting the quality of life. 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 and Muscott and Rialto Avenue Area.”
At that point, he gave the floor to councilman Henry Nickel, who inveighed against the project proposal. On July 18, Nickel had emphasized his belief that the project should be denied because it did not fit within what he characterized as the city’s inexact, disjointed, inconsistent and unclear strategy in dealing with the homeless, that included the city’s funding or a homeless resource center. Nickel did not, precisely, rehash that line of argument in depth, but broadened his rejection of the project.
Nickel noted that as currently designated, the 11.02 acres upon which project was to be constructed is divided into 55 parcels, the owners of each of which bear a $148 tax burden pursuant the annexation of the entire city into a county fire service district coinciding with the county fire department assuming fire protection service in the city and the dissolution of the city’s 137-year-old municipal fire department earlier this year. As a consequence of the development, the 55 parcels would be, Nickel said, “consolidated into four sites,” reducing the number of parcels against which the $148 assessments are being charged by a whopping 51. Nickel said the entire city had undergone “annexation into a fire zone, including a parcel tax to distribute the burden of fire service ideally equitably throughout the city on the basis of parcels.” He suggested “it is not equitable” to be “subsidizing this on the basis of public safety on the backs of other property owners.” Mary’s Mercy Home would, he said, eventually be “housing over 100 individuals demanding public safety services more than other residents of the city.”
Nickel continued, “Underlying that, San Bernardino bears the burden six times more than any other city in terms of homeless.” He cited statistics in asserting that providing help to the homeless resulted in attracting more homeless. He said that between 2013 and 2015 the number of homeless in San Bernardino increased by six percent. “The city is unduly bearing the burden of homelessness,” Nickel said, such that the number of the county’s total homeless living in San Bernardino has “jumped from 39 to 45 percent.” Denying approval of Mary’s Mercy House was “fair and equitable to the City of San Bernardino in the context of all cities in the county having shifted the burden of homelessness to San Bernardino.”
Nickel had been one of the two votes against the project on July 18. He had been joined at that time by councilwoman Bessine Richard. Richard did not recede from her position.
“I support Mary’s Mercy House,” Richard said. “They do a wonderful job, but I don’t support it being in San Bernardino. We talk about services being free. Nothing in life is free. Once we open this, 118 more people are going to flock here because we have the resources. We are the city with resources. We have to stop being the one that provides so much resources to where we bring them all to San Bernardino. Yes, [this would] supply a permanent support of housing to the homeless but… I don’t think this is anything that is going to help our city because we have to grow. Think of the businesses that we are going to lose in the community. That is going to effect that part of the town.”
Three of the four members of the council who supported the project on July 18, Fred Shorett, Virginia Marquez and Jim Mulvihill, reiterated their support of the project, in so doing countering Nickel’s argument that the project was inconsistent with the city’s ongoing efforts to deal with its homeless problem. Shorett, Marquez and Mulvihill asserted that the project was one that would make a meaningful and substantial inroad against the homeless problem the city faces and that their colleagues should not blur the distinction between it and other less effective homeless relief efforts.
“This is an opportunity to pick away at that homeless number,” Shorett said. “This is not a soup kitchen. This is working toward a solution of this horrendous homeless problem we have in our community. This is a very good start. I think it is a good project. We should take a good look at it.”
Shorett said he believed those angling to keep the project from coming to fruition were citing “reasons I can’t figure are valid.”
Marquez said “I continue to wholeheartedly support this.”
She then took issue with Valdivia’s suggestion that allowing the project to proceed would reduce the quality of life in the neighborhood around the project site.
“Talk about quality of life,” Marquez said. “What is there now is the site of an illegal dump.”
With regard to the project itself, Marquez said, “Is it perfect? No, but it is part of the solution.”
Councilman Mulvihill said, “Homelessness is a very touchy issue in our city, as councilman Nickel has pointed out, but his 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. This is not an enabling process. It is a process to cure the situation. A recent study published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development showed using just a housing first model reduced chronically homeless adults across the country by 25 percent. Talk about an effective homeless reduction program: this is it. We don’t have a strategic plan but the point is housing first will be the foundation for any strategic plan that we get. Housing first. What is second? For individuals to think about the future. They don’t have to think about day-to-day survival. They can think about tomorrow. They can think about recontacting with their families, among other things. The point is also it is without cost to the city. Homelessness is a hot issue. You see the panhandlers. You see the transients. You see the tents down at the parks. This is not that. This is not enabling. This is the solution. It has been tried again and again, with success. It works and not in terms of temporary housing. It provides stability. It provides permanent housing for these individuals. You get the permanent housing. You get the case management. It is [focused on] the individual’s development, and that is the difference.”
In making his remarks, Councilman Valdivia abandoned any pretense of being undecided with regard to the project, making clear he would not support it. “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,” he said.
Valdivia reiterated some of Nickel’s and Richard’s objections, saying he had come to the conclusion “that this is not equitable. It is not equitable to the other hardworking taxpayers in the community that have been burdened and shouldering this $148 parcel tax,” suggesting that in reducing the 55 parcels on the 11.02-acre property to four recorded parcels “there is some inequality for the average taxpayer.”
Valdivia propounded his belief that 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. This closure of the fire station at Mill and Arrowhead has already impacted the response times in my district. I can’t support this. It seems completely incompatible with the priorities I share in my district.”
With regard to the overarching impact on the city as a whole, Valdivia raised the specter of an effective program serving to attract other homeless people. “The third issue I have is the magnet effect,” Valdivia said. “This certainly will have a more inviting welcoming effect for other homeless individuals in our region to come to have resources in our community.”
And Valdivia said he was against the project because it 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.”
Dramatically, it was councilman Benito Barrios who spoke last before the vote was taken. With three of his colleagues lined up in favor of the project and three against it, his decision to stand by his vote from two weeks previous or reverse himself represented the swing vote with regard to the fate of the project.
Barrios did not waste time or words in indicating he was going to change his position and crush the hopes and expectations of the project’s proponents and supporters.
“When I last voted on this, I was very much on the fence on which way to go because I see the bigger picture, both negative and positive impacts, this could have on our community,” Barrios said. “I’m leaning toward not supporting this today because we have to look toward the future. I think we still have to work out some of the kinks to make this work. This solution, our strategy, all of this needs to be talked about. Today, I’m not going to support it.”
The project failed to gain the needed four votes.
After the vote, the Sentinel asked Barrios if the presence of Valdivia at the meeting and his expression of objection to the project had influenced his change of vote. He said, “That did not change my vote. Of greater concern to me was that after the last meeting, I was approached by several of my constituents who told me, ‘We don’t want this. What kind of impact is this going to have on our city?’”
Barrios pointed out that he had sought on July 18 to ascertain whether the project would have the effect of creating a net gain or loss of homeless in San Bernardino.
“I asked for numbers on what the attrition rate from their program is,” Barrios said. “They did not know what the attrition rate is or at least they did not give it to me. I wanted to know what happens to the people who don’t make it through the program. I wanted to know if that [those dropping out of the program] was a significant number. The aftermath of that attrition has a cost for the city. If this [the project] comes back in the future, maybe they can resolve those concerns.”
The proponents’ failure to answer his question about the attrition rate, Barrios indicated, left him inclined to accept Nickel’s, Richard’s and Valdivia’s assertions that the project would have a magnet effect and attract more homeless to the city. “What kind of impacts are we creating with these programs?” Barrios asked. “We have to cut the lifeline to these homeless programs at some point,” he said.
City manager Mark Scott signaled during the discussion that the city would soon take up the subject of formalizing the consistent and ordered response to the homeless issue that Nickel had constantly alluded to. Scott told the Sentinel such a workshop would be scheduled within 45 days.

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