A homeless man rests outside the Santa Ana Library. Credit: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

The Santa Ana City Council voted Tuesday evening to declare a “public health and safety” crisis over the ballooning homeless population at the Santa Ana Civic Center, hours after the county Board of Supervisors approved a plan to turn a shuttered bus terminal into an emergency shelter and challenged the city to take action.

In addition to supporting the use of the bus terminal as a homeless services center, the city resolution would move employee parking closer to City Hall, relocate a needle exchange program, add lighting and increase police presence and enforcement of code violations at the Civic Center.

In recent years, as the Civic Center homeless population has grown to more than 450, county and Santa Ana officials have repeatedly clashed over possible solutions and who should shoulder the responsibility.

Both city and county employees have complained 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 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.

Michele Martinez at a campaign event on the evening of the June 2016 primary.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who pushed for the resolution, said it was the result of conversations with city employee unions.

“There comes a point in time when we have to take action. There’s a public health crisis affecting the homeless and the workers,” Martinez said. “You have to understand that we do also have a responsibility to protect the employees here in the Civic Center.”

County Supervisor Andrew Do at a supervisors meeting.
County Supervisor Andrew Do at a supervisors meeting. Credit: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Martinez’s call for action comes after conservative radio hosts John and Ken last week excoriated both her and Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do — who are running against each other in the November election for the First District supervisorial seat — for allowing the situation to reach crisis proportions.

Council members voted 5-1 to approve the plan, with Councilman David Benavides voting no and Councilman Sal Tinajero absent. Mayor Miguel Pulido voted in support of the plan but said he does not support the use of the bus terminal.

Many of the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting praised city officials for attempting to address the problem, but were critical of the resolution and whether it would actually improve the quality of life for homeless people.

The bus terminal was briefly turned into an emergency shelter last year during the El Nino season, but the lack of storage for their belongings and security searches deterred many homeless from using the emergency shelter.

Eve Garrow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said that after the Board of Supervisors’ vote earlier Tuesday, the bulk of the city resolution focused on measures that would only serve to further “criminalize the act of being homeless.”

“The rest [of the resolution] calls for increased presence of law enforcement and doubling down on codes and nuisance ordinances,” said Garrow, who urged the council to reject the resolution. “Increased enforcement only violates peoples’ rights, traumatizes them and creates tension with the officers.”

‘Mamma’ Brizy Mae, a homeless resident of the Civic Center who goes by her street name, questioned what the public safety measures would mean for the safety of the homeless.

“What’s your idea of public safety — is it giving us tickets, because we’re sleeping or sick? Is it the idea that none of you have come out here and spent a week and a half on the floor, hustling for your food, your clothes or anything else you need?” she said. “Rainy season is coming and we’re still debating the [bus] terminal again.”

Earlier Tuesday, county supervisors directed staff to complete the transformation of the bus terminal, which is located on Santa Ana Boulevard adjacent to the Civic Center, into a transitional homeless services center within the next 30 to 40 days.

A few business owners turned out to oppose the use of the bus terminal because of its proximity to the downtown.

“It’s hard enough running a business let alone homeless walking by asking for cigarettes, grabbing drinks off of patio tables,” said Jeff Jensen, owner of Chapter One and C4 Deli, two downtown restaurants. “Moving it 200 yards down the way, I don’t think it’s the right answer right now.”

Planning Commissioner Phil Bacerra proposed relocating the emergency shelter to a 1.2-acre, city-owned property known as Alton Yard, which has been vacant for several years.

Several speakers chalked up the timing of Martinez’s proposal to election season.

“Michele, you’ve sat on this council for ten years, Andrew Do is a current [member of the] Board of Supervisors, and you’re fighting a turf war?” said resident Peter Katz.

County and city officials have feuded for years over where to build the county’s first year-round homeless shelter. In 2013, the Fullerton City Council voted to oppose a county plan to purchase a property in Fullerton for the shelter, prompting county supervisors to back off the proposal.

In 2014, supervisors abandoned another proposal for a homeless shelter on Normandy Place in Santa Ana, after the City Council voted for a 45-day moratorium on new homeless shelters in the city. City officials were responding to large-scale opposition from nearby residents who felt the site was too close to homes and schools.

As they did in 2014, supervisors Tuesday scolded city officials for a lack of commitment.

“We should make Santa Ana put up or shut up now,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer.

Martinez, meanwhile, blamed the county for growing number of homeless, pointing to the lack of progress on the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. The county is in the eighth year of that plan.

“The county, for a long time, has had disregard for the homeless population in the Civic Center and has put the responsibility on one city,” said Martinez. “We don’t have a money problem, we have a priority problem.”

She said the resolution was just a “first step” toward pursuing long-term solutions like permanent and transitional housing.

Martinez also responded to comments that the city has criminalized homelessness with ticketing and anti-camping ordinances, calling on city attorney Sonia Carvalho to explain the city’s intentions.

“We will never prosecute anybody for being homeless…and the police department will not issue citations to everyone in the Civic Center simply because they are homeless,” Carvalho said. “They are issuing fewer than one citation a day, and when they do issue citations…it’s after numerous warnings and after that individual is impacting public safety.”

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento, who co-authored the proposal, said for any strategy to work, the county’s other 33 cities need to get involved. The resolution also calls for City Manager David Cavazos to arrange a countywide summit of government leaders.

“This is a shared regional problem, poverty, illness, mental illness […] those are things that are pervasive in the entire county,” said Sarmiento.

Pulido listed several concerns, including questions about whether the county should foot the bill for lighting and other costs of maintaining the Civic Center, and concerns that calling a summit would fall short of expectations, given other countywide efforts to convene public officials over the issue of homelessness.

“The transit terminal will have a negative impact toward the entire downtown…and as we try to solve one problem, we’re creating others that are much bigger,” said Pulido.

Cavazos will return at the next City Council meeting with a detailed estimate of the cost to implement all the measures outlined in the resolution, which is currently estimated at $1.3 million.

Despite the rhetoric of city and county officials, many at Tuesday’s council meeting were skeptical of whether the resolution would create momentum behind a long-term strategy to tackle homelessness, or be abandoned as many other proposals have.

Smitty, a former homeless resident of the Civic Center who goes only by his first name, said moving the homeless out of the Civic Center would not take them off the streets or the bed of the Santa Ana River.

“I’m confused what the end goal is…it seems you want to force the people out of the Civic Center…which sounds good, but they’re people, they don’t disappear,” Smitty said. “If they’re not here, they’re still going to be [elsewhere].”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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