Leon Worden

If we build it, homeless will come

Leon Worden · November 12, 1997

"If you build it, they will come." In the wonderful movie "Field of Dreams," a struggling farmer is summoned by echoes in the wind to carve a baseball diamond out of his midwestern corn field. He builds it, the spirits of Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the 1919 Black Sox come and play, and in the process of doing Something Wonderful the man saves his farm and rediscovers the meaning of life.

"If you build it, they will come." The truism has played itself out several times right here in Santa Clarita.

Look at the Valencia Town Center. The Newhall Land and Farming Company can't seem to go wrong in what was once an onion field. People flock to it by the thousands.

Look at Auto Row and Restaurant Row the newer Restaurant Row over by Stevenson Ranch. Same thing. Former cattle pasture. Now you can hardly get in on a Friday or Saturday night.

"If you build it, they will come." The city is banking on it for Old Newhall. The same strategies that have rejuvenated hundreds of dilapidated downtowns throughout America in the last decade are being used here. Build that Something Wonderful in Old Town Newhall, and the people will come back.

It's the old vacuum theory. Find a void, fill it, and people will come from far and wide. That's why it's important to be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

I wonder if the City Council considered this when it voted 5-0 last month, at the urging of local church officials, to establish a homeless shelter here in Santa Clarita, possibly at the old Merle Norman cosmetics warehouse in Canyon Country.

According to news reports, our valley's lone Democratic activist, this newspaper and even our conservative Republican congressman, Buck McKeon, support it.

Is everybody nuts?

I'm as compassionate as the next guy. If somebody from Santa Clarita loses a job, a spouse, their children, their home, then yes, by God, we have a moral obligation as a community to help that person get back on his feet. That's why so many of us give so much money and volunteer hours to the myriad charities in town. Santa Claritans are good people who care about each other. We know that what is good for our community is good for us as individuals.

But building a homeless shelter is a different matter. Beyond the charitable organizations, several public agencies deal with the plight of the homeless, from county social services to the state employment development department.

I work in a city that has a serious homeless problem. I see scores of homeless every day -- usually the same ones. The faces rarely change. Some suffer from maladies that make them a danger to themselves and others and should be institutionalized. Their answer is not a homeless shelter.

Nor is it an answer for the beggars I see at freeway offramps with the "Will work for food" signs. Many are professionals, hired by ignoble con men who prey on the good intentions of passers-by.

As for the "genuine" homeless, well, most aren't stupid. They migrate toward state capitols and other large cities, and to beach communities. The former because it's easier to work the system if you're in the middle of it, and the latter for the climate and the tourist trade. Like most people they go where they are comfortable and they follow the money.

Santa Clarita has had a day laborer problem because Newhall is talked about in Tijuana as a good place to find work. In some ways that is more commendable than the reputation we are seeking now.

We aren't known as a homeless-friendly community. Do we really want to change that? What kind of community do we want to be? Do we want to build a homeless shelter because it is right for Santa Clarita, or are we diving into this feet-first for some other reason?

A shelter has the support of all five City Council members, this newspaper and several politicians, so I know I'm barking up a rather tall tree. I only hope we will step back long enough to think it through. Because once we do this, the word will get out. Far beyond our safe, secure little valley. If we build it, they will come.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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