Santana: Is it Criminal to be Homeless in Anaheim?

Following recent publication of troubling videos questioning how Anaheim PD enforces the city’s anti-camping – many say anti-homeless – ordinance, Police Chief Raul Quesada has taken a bold move.

“In response to community concerns, recent case law developments and to ensure we are providing our officers with updated training in this area, the Police Department, in consultation with the City Attorney’s Office is reexamining the application and enforcement of Chapter 11.10 of the Anaheim Municipal Code (AMC): Camping and Storage of Personal Property in Public Areas,” wrote Quesada last week, issuing a department memo.

“Effective immediately, enforcement of this Chapter and any subsection(s) within it is suspended until further notice,” Quesada wrote, stressing that the move shouldn’t be seen as any indication that current policy was improper.

To read Quesada’s memo, click here

Quesada’s memo also gives city officials a chance to rethink the arrest last week of R. Joshua Collins, a homeless activist who has in recent months written critical columns in the Voice of OC protesting how Anaheim PD enforces the city’s anti-camping ordinance.

Collins’ columns often feature videos of officers enforcing the ordinance in ways that have raised questions among community leaders, like Dr. Jose Moreno, about whether the approach is not only overly harsh but possibly even illegal.

Whether you like Collins’ approach or not, watching his videos prompts Moreno to ask himself whether Anaheim is really making homelessness an illegal act. He and others who have addressed the issue with Quezada indicate he’s seen the videos as well and is troubled by what he’s watching.

We should all ask ourselves whether it’s really good policy to ask local police to become homeless outreach specialists. Homelessness is as much a police responsibility as are potholes and putting officers on the front lines of this societal problem is courting disaster.

The Kelly Thomas police beating death in Fullerton was supposed to have reinforced that lesson.

Many Anaheim residents living near Maxwell and Twila Reed parks in recent years have legitimately petitioned city council members publicly about homeless camping at the parks, complaining about a host of illegal behavior at parks meant for recreation and kids.

These residents have a right to enjoy their local parks without having to navigate around homeless people.

Yet Anaheim city council members have reacted to this challenge with the same, tired old recipe: adopt an ordinance and task police officers with stepping up enforcement.

Anaheim’s Mayor Tom Tait acknowledges city officials need a more creative, holistic approach and credited Quezada for offering all sides a chance to reassess.

“There needs to be a change in dialogue,” Tait said during an interview this weekend. He acknowledges that police officers are not equipped to deal with the full range of issues connected to homelessness.

“What we’re asking them to do is very nuanced, go in there and fix everything,” Tait said. “It calls for a lot of skills that they aren’t necessarily trained for… you have to have empathy for the officers. We shouldn’t be asking them to fix everything.”

Tait’s comments remind me of my high school days as a machinist apprentice at my Catholic high school, Don Bosco Technical Institute in Rosemead.

Whenever you pulled out a hammer in the shop – to tap in a screw that just wouldn’t cooperate – you’d have a priest pounce on you immediately asking all kinds of questions.

“A hammer is a wonderful tool,” they’d insist. “But it only has one use. To bang something into place that will never be taken out.”

The priests would insist that I avoid the hammer whenever I got impatient and use my mind.

Most often, by unscrewing a bolt, you’d indeed notice a sliver of dirt on the threads, wipe it off with a shop rag and it would go in nicely with simple hand power.

Police officers are the most expensive policy tool, and one geared toward compliance not necessarily understanding.

Yet there does seem to be movement on this issue in Orange County.

Recently, County Supervisor Andrew Do acknowledged that county officials need to come up with a better approach than just allowing the civic center in downtown Santa Ana to become a homeless encampment.

County officials have increased outreach from the Health Care Agency and the Social Services Agency at the civic center in recent months and are moving to appoint a county executive to concentrate on homelessness, even considering an abandoned bus shelter at the civic center as a potential triage center to identify street people in need.

Tait applauds that kind of work but reminds county officials that they can also do a lot more by partnering with city officials who don’t have tons of state and federal funds, or agencies capable of dealing with poverty or mental issues like the county.

That’s the kind of partnering that can really get help to all the residents of Anaheim, who are hoping to get their parks back to just being parks.

Tait calls it “Coming Home Anaheim,” a process where nonprofits, the county, cities, churches all step up to deal with these people as people.

“It’s not just a police issue,” Tait said. “It’s a city issue, it’s a county issue and beyond government, it’s a community issue we all have to work on. We’re all in this together.”

Collins has already shown a way forward by putting a face on the problem. His videos – where he verbally challenges police officers on the legality of their actions — clearly show the impossible situation we are asking them to confront.

In addition to video, Collins approached the Los Amigos community group weekly breakfast meetings in Anaheim earlier this year and challenged them to defend the homeless. The group, which often helps with community petitions and is led by Moreno, interceded on Collins’ behalf earlier this month asking Quesada to hear his concerns.

Collins – who himself lives among the homeless on Anaheim’s streets — continuously monitors and videotapes police responses at Anaheim parks where homeless residents congregate.

He believes that officers overstep their bounds on what the law allows and illegally take the belongings of homeless residents at local parks.

Collins has repeatedly filmed officers and questions them on camera about why they are confiscating certain people’s belongings and what they’ve done with other belongings. Collins contends that many homeless residents who lose their stuff say they can’t get it back easily.

Quesada sat politely without saying a word throughout a tense exchange a few weeks ago at Los Amigos between Collins and several department officers that deal with homeless issues at the local parks Collins has covered.

A group of very diplomatic and likeable officers talked about their attempts to deal with homelessness and their considerable interactions with nonprofits working with the issue. Collins and others filming police were virtually jumping out of their skin, thrown by the difference in tone from police at the community meeting versus what activists see at local parks.

While Quezada never said anything at the public meeting, he’s apparently also been thrown by what he’s seen on video.

To his credit, he’s stopping to check and see if there’s a better way besides the hammer.

We should all heed his call and collectively step up to craft a different kind of visual when it comes to homelessness in Orange County.