Homeless people who spend the cold nights outside at Orange County’s government seat in Santa Ana have organized a lobby group in response to what they say is an apparent police effort to oust them from the downtown complex.
About 10 members of the advocacy group known as the Civic Center Roundtable attended Tuesday night’s City Council meeting to address their government and make some modest demands. They claimed that police engaged in two recent “midnight raids,” rousting people from their sleep and demanding that they leave.
The advocates asked for a moratorium on citations for violating the city’s anti-camping ordinance, an end to police confiscation of their possessions and the opening up of a vacant bus terminal.
One woman challenged council members before exiting the warm council meeting chambers for her de facto home right outside its doors — the Civic Center pavement.
“Come and find out what it is to sleep on the cold cement,” ‘Mamma’ Brizy Mae, a homeless woman who goes by her street name, told the council. “We are American citizens just as much as you people are.”
Police Chief Carlos Rojas in an interview after the meeting said that there haven’t been any late-night raids and that the number of officers patrolling the downtown has remained the same. Officers using a special team attempt to connect homeless people with services that can help them, he said.
Orange County is one of the few in the state that doesn’t have a year-round shelter, and efforts in recent years to establish one have sputtered. As things stand now, homeless people from all over the county converge at the Civic Center — the county government hub in the heart of Santa Ana — primarily because there are services and daily free meals.
The Fullerton City Council in 2012 rejected a proposal for a permanent shelter in that city, and Santa Ana officials have resisted turning the bus depot into a shelter because they fear possible negative impacts on the bustling downtown.
Santa Ana last August zoned industrial areas as proper spots for the shelters, a move that was intended to comply with 2008 state legislation that requires cities and counties to make space available for a year-round shelter. It is unclear whether there has been more progress since then.
But members of Civic Center Roundtable said that the year-round shelter aside, a lot of progress can be made with just a few policy changes.
The anti-camping ordinance accomplishes little, leads to citations — which they said have been increasing in number — and only compounds costs for people who can’t afford even to feed themselves, they said.
Outside the council chambers, Mae said police forced a woman sick with AIDS to remove the blanket she was using to wrap herself.
And with no place to store their belongings, a homeless person at a job interview could lose the few possessions they have to theft, said Tim Houchen, who said he became homeless two years ago after losing his job as a legal assistant.
Houchen, the group’s elected spokesman, pointed to a recently enacted program in Anaheim whereby the city helps fund a nonprofit that stores items for homeless people.
“If we had a place to store our stuff, you would eliminate a lot of the blight,” Houchen said.
Houchen said he had worked for a firm that conducted mortgage foreclosure defense. “Now I’m fighting for a home for the rest of us,” he said.
Rojas said camping tickets are often dismissed in court, so officers are reluctant to issue them and have thus been giving out fewer.
“If anything. it’s in the opposite direction. Really, the camping ordinance doesn’t have any teeth,” Rojas said.
According to Rojas, police have been utilizing a Homeless Evaluation Response Team or HEART that connects homeless people to nonprofits that can help them or even locates family members who can take them in.
Rojas said that the team has had 83 “rescues” of homeless people so far.
The homeless advocates have at the very least caught the attention of some council members. Councilmen David Benavides and Roman Reyna and Councilwoman Angelica Amezcua said they wanted to be part of a task force to study the issue.