Claremonters get first glimpse of council candidates at homeless forum

Five city council candidates were tested on their knowledge of homeless issues during a forum at Pitzer College Monday evening.

The forum, which took place in the Founder’s Room and was organized by a local chapter of the advocacy group Winning Margins, was also an opportunity for the public to get a glimpse on who will or may be running for city council this year.

The panel included Councilmember Sam Pedroza, who is running for his fourth term on the council; Zach Courser, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who ran in 2017; Police Commissioner Ed Reece; immigration attorney and Community and Human Services Commissioner Jed Leano; and Jennifer Stark, traffic and transportation commissioner and a founding member of Claremont Canopy.

Anne Marie Sullivan, the program director for the Claremont Homeless Advocacy Program (CHAP), moderated the event. She replaced Councilmember Joe Lyons, who backed out at the last minute. Ms. Sullivan said that the goal of CHAP is assisting the homeless and changing the idea on how to engage with them in a more positive way.

“That’s kind of the attitude I hope would somewhat grow in Claremont,” she said. “That they would at least be your acquaintances than people you are afraid of or people you don’t want around.”

Each candidate was given three minutes to introduce him or herself and talk about their thoughts on homelessness.

Ms. Stark said that homelessness in Claremont is something that is going to require an “all hands on deck approach” and should be confronted in terms of collaboration and connection. A Claremont native, Ms. Stark touched upon her parents instilling a sense of obligation in her to give back to the community.

“It is from this place of deep commitment and connection, and a sincere appreciation that I’m running for city council,” she said. “Everything that I am, I can trace back to something I received from Claremont.”

Mr. Reece has a personal connection to homelessness; he shared with the crowd of about 35 people that he was once homeless himself, living on the floor of a car dealership and taking showers in the car wash bay. Now, he owns his own company, provides gainful employment to others and is involved in the community.

“I look forward to taking these experiences in life, the experiences in business to city hall and help this community,” he said.

Mr. Leano believes that Claremont “is ripe for the passing of the torch to a new generation of young leadership,” later noting that the community and human services commission oversees the city’s outreach to the homeless.

“The topic tonight is not about who wins on November 6, it is about what we as leaders and all of you as community members do on November 7,” he said.

Mr. Pedroza was frank in saying homelessness wasn’t an issue he campaigned on when he first got on the council, but noted it was incumbent on every elected official in Los Angeles County to get involved with Measure H, a sales tax initiative to fund county homeless services that was passed by the voters in 2017.

Mr. Courser touched upon his work with CHAP, and noted homelessness was one of his top three issues when he ran for council in 2017. He told the audience he would like to see CHAP considered on the same level as other volunteer-based groups such as Sustainable Claremont and Claremont Heritage and receive more financial support from the city.

“I’ve seen CHAP work,” he said.

The candidates were asked up to four questions each on issues surrounding homelessness in Claremont. When asked by Ms. Sullivan how he relates to the “continuum of homelessness,” Mr. Reece noted access to affordable housing, employment, and a “well-oiled machine” of services coming together would be paramount in breaking the cycle.

Mr. Courser, when asked about the role local government should play, said there should be more focus on what comes after city officials identify someone as homeless.

“The city makes a referral and then what? We need to follow through with permanent solutions like housing and getting jobs,” he said.

Ms. Sullivan asked Ms. Stark about  homeless initiative strategies currently offered through the county.

“In the last two weeks I have been doing a lot of studying on the policies that are in place,” Ms. Stark said. “I don’t want to spend too much time stumbling over my words, but the initiative includes services, shelter, job opportunities, prevention.”

Mr. Leano, when asked how funding sources from the county can be used, noted that the city is getting a consultant from the county to take inventory on what the city does and what they can improve upon.

“The next thing we need to do is go to the county and say, ‘Put the money where your mouth is,’” he said. “You authorized a consultant that analyzed what we’re doing but we need the funds to make it happen.”

Another question asked by Ms. Sullivan focused on the lack of affordable housing in Claremont. Mr. Pedroza placed some of the blame on NIMBYism, and said the upcoming Village South development would be an opportunity to build “smaller, more affordable homes” in town.

Mr. Reece took issue with the city’s housing element, saying that a large number of units designated for affordable housing were placed at the Claremont Golf Course, which is owned by the Claremont Colleges. He pledged to work with developers to build units elsewhere in the city.

Mr. Leano said there were multiple sources to make housing more affordable in Claremont, both at a city and a larger level—including the proliferation of back houses and combating wage stagnation.

“We can’t do this in one proposal, we have to do it in multiple proposals,” he said.

Questions from the public ranged from how homeless people are identified in Claremont, to the issue of drugs and mental illness.

Mary Beth Fletcher asked the candidates about whether or not they would support rent control in Claremont. Mr. Courser was unconvinced rent control was the answer and floated a voucher program for those who need it as a better solution. Ms. Stark piggybacked on that, saying a voucher program could be given at a local level.

During closing statements, Mr. Courser remarked that the council race is still early in the game, and revealed that he has not yet made a formal decision to run again for a city council seat.

Mr. Pedroza thanked Winning Margins for putting the forum together. “Being the first out the gate, you are definitely making the mark of setting homelessness as an issue in the community,” he said.

Mr. Leano called for the city to lead the way in changing the negative mentality many cities have toward the homeless. Mr. Reece also thanked those in attendance.

“The opportunity to make a big dent to end homelessness starts in rooms like this,” he said.

Three city council seats are up for grabs, and Claremonters will go to the polls to vote on November 6.

—Matthew Bramlett


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