Amid a rash of complaints about deteriorating safety and sanitation at the Santa Ana Civic Center related to the growing homeless population, city leaders voted Tuesday to spend $730,000 to increase security patrols, improve lighting, and other measures.
Under the plan, which was developed with county CEO Frank Kim, police officers assigned to patrol the Civic Center will double from seven to 14 and five private security guards will be added to patrol common areas and parking lots as well as provide security escorts.
The plan also calls for adding a kiosk or booth staffed by police and private security, changing the lighting to brighter LED lights, increasing the frequency of power washing and trash cleanup, moving the needle exchange program and meal feeding elsewhere, and moving parking for city employees closer to City Hall.
It comes on the heels of the council declaring a “public health and safety crisis” at the Civic Center two weeks ago.
The plan was approved unanimously Tuesday without comment from the council. It’s slated to cost $1.3 million in total, with $732,000 coming from Santa Ana and $588,000 from the county. The county has agreed to much of the funding but said it needs more information before committing to the rest.
The only comment about the issue at Tuesday’s meeting came from two local activists.
Longtime resident Thomas Gordon told council members someone in the Civic Center recently pulled a knife on him. “I just think that the lawlessness and the chaos and the anarchy that rules outside is just out of control,” Gordon said.
He also urged council members to immediately stop the weekly needle hand-outs in the Civic Center by a local non-profit group.
“You have children that have to walk through it in order to get to the library,” Gordon said. “I implore you to do something immediately.”
Joesé Hernandez, an organizer with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, implored the council to think about long-term solutions to the lack of affordable housing in Santa Ana.
“The homelessness crisis is just part of a bigger housing crisis that we’re facing here in Santa Ana,” Hernandez said. He asked that the city use its foresight and wisdom to provide affordable housing for thousands of Santa Ana residents who "desperately need it.”
“As Jesus said, the poor will always be among you. And sure enough, 2000 years later, they still are. And still there are the excuses for doing one thing or not doing the other.”
The Civic Center homeless population has ballooned in recent years to more than 450 people, prompting complaints from city, county, and court employees – as well as the public – about an unsafe and unsanitary environment in the public plaza.
Reports of assaults and other crimes are up significantly over the past year, and last month Santa Ana police shot and killed a homeless man during an altercation.
Public health advocates are also sounding alarms, with warnings that the crowded conditions and lack of adequate bathrooms are attracting vermin and causing the spread of disease.
Up until recently, county and Santa Ana officials have mostly clashed and over possible solutions and who should shoulder the responsibility.
But a series of highly critical radio shows about the situation by John and Ken of KFI-AM – which reaches one of the largest audiences of any Southern California-focused broadcast – precipitated a sudden jump to action from the city and county.
The radio hosts lambasted both Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez and OC Supervisor Andrew Do – who are competing against each other for Do’s seat in the November election – for not doing more to clean up the area. John and Ken noted that hypodermic needles and human feces are often found at the Civic Center, including needles at the city’s main public library.
For Do’s part, he committed during the Aug. 31 show to having the county start providing homeless services in the abandoned bus terminal next to the Civic Center within 30 days if the city doesn’t stand in the way.
That same day, Santa Ana Councilman Vincent Sarmiento announced that he and Martinez had co-authored a proposal urging the county to do just that, which was approved by the full council the following Tuesday. Also that day, Tuesday (Sept. 6), county supervisors approved getting the service center up and running and trying to coordinate with Santa Ana within 30 to 45 days.
Unless Do claims the city has been obstructive, his 30-day deadline to open the service center would be next Friday.
While county officials say they support much of the city’s proposal, they’re still holding out for more information before chipping in to fund the police, security guard, and kiosk components.
In a letter last Friday to City Manager David Cavazos, Kim, the county CEO, wrote that Cavazos had agreed to share “detailed information” about this part of the plan to make sure it’s being targeted at the areas most in need.
“I am concerned that the draft September 20, 2016 council agenda item you shared with me asks for your Council’s support based on the statement that City staff is confident the County will contribute $587,836 and partner on the relocation of the Needle Exchange Program. This statement is not accurate,” Kim wrote.
“Any funding related to security guards, additional police presence or a public kiosk requires further consideration and discussion once we have received the City’s detailed information.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.