Bellflower’s homeless problem
In 2018, the leaders of Bellflower, had what Mayor Juan Garza calls a “wake-up moment.”
For the first time in the Bellflower’s history, a citywide poll had found homelessness, not crime, to be the issue that most concerned residents. “Bar none, every single year, crime had always been the number 1 issue,” Garza says.
The city didn’t have a single homeless shelter; however, it did have 166 homeless residents, according to a point-in-time survey, and most of them were living on the streets and in tents and cars or RVs.
In September 2019, Bellflower’s elected leaders did something astonishing. They voluntarily joined a settlement agreement in a federal lawsuit that was forcing cities in adjacent Orange County to build homeless shelters.
They could have built a shelter on their own, but the settlement presented a win-win opportunity, Garza says.
The city agreed to build 50 beds available only to homeless residents who have ties to the city, like a previous address or attendance at the local high school. And, in exchange, it would win the right to enforce anti-camping and “anti-nuisance” laws against anyone living on the streets who declined a shelter bed.
“If we didn’t make this exclusive to Bellflower, our residents would have rejected it,” Garza says. “And my City Council that is traditionally very conservative went along with it.”
The agreement was signed on September 23, when city manager Jeff Stewart says he and his team at City Hall got to work. At first, they zeroed in on an empty piece of land near the San Gabriel River but changed course as the cost to develop it ballooned—the utility connections alone were priced at $2 million.
By December, they decided to either buy or lease a building. In 3 days, they inventoried every available big commercial property in the city. After one week, they signed a lease for a 1960s prefab warehouse nestled behind a feed store on Lakewood Boulevard.
Just before Christmas, Michael Bohn, an architect who had just finished a food hall made of shipping containers for Bellflower, got a call from the city’s contractor, Howard CDM.
Bohn says the Bellflower mayor and the other elected leaders deserve a lot of credit for joining the lawsuit. “What Judge Carter is doing that’s so phenomenal is forcing cities to deal with the issue,” he says. “There was a burning desire to respond quickly. And this is the perfect time to speed these things up.”