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Mission Viejo is moving to beef up a no-camping ordinance that the American Civil Liberties Union and a homeless advocacy group say unconstitutionally discriminates against homeless people.

“These ordinances violate the Constitutional rights of our most economically vulnerable community members,” ACLU Policy Analyst Eve Garrow told the council during Tuesday’s meeting. “You just don’t solve a humanitarian crisis by persecuting people.”

“That’s why enforcement of such ordinance would violate the Constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment).”

Mission Viejo City Attorney Bill Curley said Garrow was wrong.

“Saying there’s Constitutional defects, I flat out say that’s nonsense,” Curley said.

The five member city council unanimously passed the ordinance change. It will come back Sept. 12 for a second reading before it becomes goes into effect.  

The camping ordinance is a revision of the city’s previous camping law, which only addressed sleeping in cars, campers, recreational vehicles and trailers. The new ordinance applies to individuals sleeping anywhere on public property in the city.

“Unless otherwise permitted by law, it is unlawful for any person to camp or use camp paraphernalia in or on any public park, street, sidewalk or other public property,” the ordinance reads.

The penalties for violating the law are $150 for the first offense, $250 for the second and up to $500 for the third violation, said Curley in a Thursday telephone interview.

“We’re not looking to grab people and shake the money out of their pockets,” Curley said. “We educate all of our (Sheriff’s) deputies … if someone’s there, and they don’t have alternative housing, we don’t cite them.”

Curley added that City Manager Dennis Wilberg has directed staff to put together a comprehensive list of alternative, transitional and affordable housing throughout the city.

“Ordinances like these can’t teach someone to not be homeless,” housing advocate Jeanine Robbins told the city council. “Or do you just intend to try and drive the homeless population out of Mission Viejo into surrounding cities?”

“The concept is … if you harass, berate, intimidate the homeless people and force them to move on a daily basis … then they’ll move away,” said her husband Mike Robbins. “It’s time for the war on homeless to end.”

Jeanine and Mike Robbins, Anaheim residents, are members of the Housing is a Human Right countywide advocacy group that had six members at the council meeting.

However, Curley said during Tuesday’s meeting the city is within the law and he spoke with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office about the issue.

“We are absolutely confident in the legal propriety of our ordinances,” Curley said. “We are absolutely, excruciatingly aware … if we don’t have alternative housing, we don’t enforce it.”

Although it doesn’t give a city-by-city breakdown, there are 286 homeless people in all of south Orange County county, according to the 2017 Point-in-Time count for the county’s homeless population. The countywide total is 4,792.

“Let me just assure you, and I know you’re concerned about the legal issues, as far as the human issues — the faith-based groups here in Mission Viejo are just amazing,” Councilman Greg Raths said during the meeting, adding he has previously sheltered homeless people at his house.

Members of the Anaheim-based Housing is a Human Right advocacy group said the city should provide some kind of housing or shelter for the homeless, but acknowledged Mission Viejo can’t do it on its own.

“How many beds does this city have to house the homeless?” Jeanine Robbins asked during the meeting. “You’d be better off pressuring county officials — especially Supervisor Lisa Bartlett — to spend the money and fulfill their 10-year plan to end homelessness.”

Another housing advocate, Wes Jones of Anaheim said, “There are five people standing between you, your city and solving homelessness in the city. And that’s the Board of Supervisors.”

The county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness enters its eighth year next month and critics repeatedly have said nothing to very little has been done to address the housing needs of the homeless.

Meanwhile, some city officials took offense at claims made by the advocacy group and the ACLU.

“So it’s very easy to sit outside the city and not know anything about the city’s character and not know anything about the character of the people that sit up here on this dais — including city staff — and impugn their character by telling us that we don’t care about the homeless,” Mayor Pro Tem Ed Sachs said.

Added Wilberg, “that’s one of my hot buttons, if you will, is when people accuse us of not doing enough for affordable housing. Because, again, back in 2008 we zoned sites for affordable housing.”

Wilberg also said because the state cut housing subsidies, developers aren’t looking to build on the sites they have zoned for affordable housing.

“This is not an attempt to move homeless people away from Mission Viejo. We are, in fact, doing what we can to help address the issue,” Wilberg said. “We’ve done what we can in terms of zoning and marketing.”

Said Curley, “the goal here wasn’t to ambush or do anything. It was try to get current under the law … and just keep your codes current. It’s basic good government to not let things get obsolete.”

Sachs said the city is trying to do the right thing for homeless people and “our hearts are given to them.”

“HAHAHA — that’s great,” Mike Robbins interjected from the audience.

“Would you like to have some … conversation, sir?” Sach’s asked.

“That’s the exact same thing that every city council has said. Let the lawsuits begin, we’re not seeing anything different,” Mike Robbins answered back, before Mayor Wendy Bucknam cut him off.

Sachs responded to Mike Robbins shortly after.

“You just sit there and cackle, so I’m going to move this item and vote favorably for it,” Sachs said.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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