Ghooray: Homelessness Is Not a Crime

City of Santa Ana

A view of the homeless camp at the Plaza of the Flags next to Santa Ana City Hall and Orange County's main courthouse.

On Tuesday, October 17, the Santa Ana City Council will vote on an ordinance that would make homelessness functionally illegal in the Civic Center. The ordinance bans possession of basic survival essentials and prevents nonprofits from providing food, medical care, and other aid. This is inhumane and will only make conditions worse.

Health, safety, and welfare concerns in the Civic Center are cited as the motivations for the ordinance. Yes, it is true that there is a public health crisis in the Civic Center, but the people who live there are not to blame. Discriminatory economic and healthcare policies, unaffordable rent, and the criminalization of homelessness are the primary causes of this emergency. As rents have increased in the past two years, the homeless population in the Civic Center has almost doubled. The most recent Point in Time count found over 4,800 residents without a home in Santa Ana.

Civic Center residents are the main victims of the public health crisis, not its perpetrators.

Let’s take a look at how policies, rather than residents, are to blame for this public health crisis.

There are no public restrooms available to the hundreds of people living in the civic center. Where then are they supposed to go? Their only options are the library restrooms and their own makeshift toilets. Yet, homeless people are blamed for the city’s irresponsibility in refusing to provide public or portable restrooms. If we want civic center residents to stop urinating in containers, using the library restrooms, and defecating in public spaces, then we need to provide restrooms that they can use.

Another major problem cited by the ordinance is the prevalence of used and discarded hypodermic needles in the Civic Center and the library. Again, let’s ask why this is the case. A survey of several hundred clients of Orange County’s needle exchange program showed that the overwhelming majority properly dispose of their needles at the needle exchange, saying that they do this out of concerns for safety, cleanliness, and personal responsibility. So why is there still needle litter from improperly discarded syringes? The answer is simple: despite the fact that it is legal in California to carry needles and injection supplies, police commonly cite, detain, or arrest people for possession of needles. In fact, hundreds of the clients surveyed reported that they had been unjustly cited for possessing supplies protected by the law. Under this threat of being arrested for something that is actually legally protected, many people are forced to discard their needles as soon as possible instead of waiting until the needle exchange opens.

The people who live in the Civic Center are human beings and they are a part of our community. Public health solutions need to focus on improving their health too. It is shameful for the city to cater to individuals who simply do not like to look at homeless people on their way to work while further depriving thousands of residents of their basic human rights.

There are several steps that the city can take to improve sanitation without criminalizing the true victims of this public health crisis: providing public restrooms; allowing people to discard their needles at OCNEP or in mounted sharps containers without being arrested for legally carrying needles; and allowing residents access to food, medical care, and other aid to improve their health. Long-term efforts should focus on affordable housing, equitable hiring practices, and access to healthcare.

Do not let the city of Santa Ana approve this inhumane piece of legislation. Let’s address this public health crisis in a way that will benefit all who live in Santa Ana.

Kala Ghooray is a medical student at UC Irvine and a Master in Public Health (MPH) candidate at UC Berkeley.  She works at the Family Health Center in Santa Ana and volunteers at the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP).

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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