Civic Center Homeless at Odds With City Over Proposed Storage Center

Adam Elmahrek/Voice of OC

Tim Houchen, a spokesman for the homeless lobby group Civic Center Roundtable, surveys the homeless encampments outside Santa Ana City Hall in 2015.

A group of homeless people who camp at the sprawling Orange County Civic Center are speaking out against a proposed storage and check-in center and saying Santa Ana officials didn’t include them in the planning process.

Members of the group, known as Civic Center Roundtable, are also suspicious about city officials’ intent to have delivery of food, clothing and other goods coordinated from the planned hub, saying it’s a stealth effort to regulate how food is served.

“I’d like to say that any attempt to regulate food, the serving of food by the city, will be met with fierce opposition,” group spokesman Tim Houchen told the City Council at their Jan. 20 meeting. “What city has the right to tell a Catholic, a Baptist, a Presbyterian or even a Muslim who he can feed, when he can feed them, and where?”

When council members approved negotiations with the nonprofit Mercy House to operate a storage center last month, it was seen as a rare example of progress on an issue that has vexed county and city leaders for years.

It followed separate failed efforts in Fullerton and Santa Ana to secure the county’s first year-round homeless shelter. In both cities, officials and county supervisors backed down in the face of opposition from residents who live near the proposed sites.

Meanwhile, the number of encampments and people at the Civic Center appear to have grown over the last two years, which advocates say is due at least in part to the transfer of state prisoners to local control as part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s prison realignment program.

A similar trend seems to be occurring in Los Angeles County, and volunteers over the weekend engaged in the biennial point-in-time count homelessness count to confirm whether the number of homeless people has indeed significantly increased.

The storage center would address one of the most common complaints from homeless people – the frequent confiscation of their things by police officers. And despite the suspicions, city officials say they have no ulterior motives for establishing the center.

Officials say they met with Civic Center Roundtable members “on a number of occasions” and incorporated elements in their storage center plans requested by the group’s members, including, among other suggestions, cell phone charging stations, services like bus pass and ID assistance and extending the area’s bus terminal restroom hours, according to a statement from the city sent to Voice of OC.

The statement also says that staff from the city manager’s office and Police Chief Carlos Rojas met with the group’s members on the day of the Jan. 20 council meeting and “clarified that the planned coordination of food distribution is not intended to discourage charity or other groups from serving the homeless but rather to leverage and maximize the good will of these groups.”

Officials that day also told roundtable members the Mercy House contract is still being negotiated, the site hasn’t yet been selected, and the group could submit “changes or recommendations” they want to see in an upcoming contract, according to the statement.

Houchen confirmed the meeting between officials and the group, but said that, while having input is important, the group’s members should be included in step-by-step deliberations during the planning of the center.

“There’s a difference between input and participation,” Houchen said.

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