Santa Ana officials are reworking parts of their proposal to outlaw certain property of homeless people in the city’s Civic Center, after an outcry from lawyers and activists who condemned key elements as cruel and unconstitutional.
The original proposal, which was up for approval last week, included broad bans on homeless people’s possessions in the Civic Center, including prohibitions on any items within 70 feet of a building, use of shade structures – like umbrellas or tarps – that create an “enclosed structure,” any pets that are not officially service dogs, and any other items or activities officials believe presents “a risk of injury, disease or a health and safety concern.”
It also would have also banned anyone from “providing food, medical, or social services in the Civic Center” without written permission from the city. Violating any of the bans would be a misdemeanor crime.
After pushback from the public, council members gave initial approval to most of the new bans but directed staff to change other parts, like the 70-foot rule and ban on enclosed structures. Other than easing the animal ban to a limit of two dogs per person, the exact changes are still being developed before heading to the council for a final vote next Tuesday, Oct. 17.
The proposed crackdown comes as at least 175 homeless people are estimated to live in the Civic Center, mainly concentrated just outside City Hall in a usually-vacant concrete area known as the Plaza of the Flags.
At the same time, both county homeless shelters are full. Large numbers of homeless people have camped at the Civic Center for years but now, the county has closed off its side of the Santa Ana Civic Center for construction, effectively pushing the homeless population that had been living there over to the city and Superior Court’s side of the Civic Center.
As part of their first approval, council members approved the ban on any services in the Civic Center that don't have city approval, as well as the general ban on anything officials believe presents “a risk of injury, disease or a health and safety concern.” Those bans wouldn’t take effect until the council’s final approval next Tuesday, if they vote to proceed.
City staff said the new bans were needed to maintain public health and safety in the Civic Center amid a variety of problems like discarded hypodermic needles, propane tanks placed near people smoking, sexual and physical assaults, and human feces and urine left in the open.
Their proposal was first publicly released the evening of Sept. 28 and was scheduled for an emergency vote last Tuesday that would have put it immediately into effect.
The broad language of the bans drew strong pushback from homeless advocates, including lawyers currently suing the city over alleged constitutional violations in the city’s seizure of homeless people’s property in the Civic Center.
The proposal “would violate a number of court decisions,” attorney Brooke Weitzman told council members as they considered the proposal Tuesday. Weitzman successfully sued Orange County over homeless property seizures earlier this year and has an ongoing lawsuit against Santa Ana over property seizures at the Civic Center.
The proposal “seems to have this idea that increased criminalization solves homelessness,” when the council knows housing solves homelessness, Weitzman said.
By passing the ban, the council would be “criminalizing the behavior that people need to survive,” said Catherine Sweetser, another attorney who represents homeless people in the Civic Center.
Dwight Smith, who has served food to homeless people in the Civic Center people for over 20 years, suggested his Catholic Worker volunteers are prepared to get arrested in order to continue serving at the Civic Center. Another speaker, Dave Oakley, followed up by saying he’s willing to get arrested.
Smith, whose organization is the lead plaintiff in Weitzman’s lawsuit against the city, said the last time he sued Santa Ana, his lawyers didn't accept reimbursement for their $750,000 in legal fees. Smith doubted they would be so generous this time.
A total of 25 members of the public spoke against the proposal at last week's council meeting, and two public commenters spoke in favor of it.
Among those in favor was the president of the city’s general employees union, Mike Lopez, who said the proposal balances being sensitive to people’s human dignity with protecting health and safety.
“This is not a final solution, however we are confident” it is a step in the right direction, Lopez said.
In response to the complaints, City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said the proposal is intended to protect against safety hazards like propane tanks that have been sitting in the open next to people smoking.
And, she said, the ban on pets is intended to address situations staff came across in which a dog had just given birth to 10 puppies and the owner refused to spay the dog.
People who are simply sleeping on bed roll in the Civic Center would not be cited under the proposed ordinance, Carvalho added.
City Council members agreed with the general goal of the ban proposal, saying more needs to be done to address health and safety concerns.
“This is not about criminalizing the homeless,” said Councilman Juan Villegas, who has worked as a sheriff’s special officer in the Civic Center area off and on for more than two decades.
There are homeless people who don’t want the help offered to them by city police officers, Villegas said, and “don’t want to abide by the rules”
“This has gone way too far,” Villegas said, adding he’s seen the needles in the Civic Center. “This is the county seat. We need to clean it up.”
Council members hedged on some of the more controversial proposals, after Councilman Vicente Sarmiento said a court could strike them down.
Sarmiento, who is the only lawyer on the City Council, said he sees how some of the bans could be “thrown out” by a court. Specifically, he pointed to the proposed bans on shopping carts, non-functioning bicycles or bike parts, recycled materials, carpets, and umbrellas and canopies that form enclosed structures.
Sarmiento asked his colleagues to have city staff amend some of bans, reach out to non-profits and service providers who have expressed concerns, and change it from an emergency ordinance that would take effect immediately to a regular ordinance that requires a second vote two weeks later.
The council agreed to that, as well as a suggestion from Mayor Miguel Pulido to change the outright ban on animals who aren’t service dogs, to instead have it cap the number of animals at two per person.
The final language for the city’s new Civic Center bans will likely become public Thursday, when the City Council agenda is posted for the meeting next Tuesday, where the vote will be held.
Weitzman said if the city’s intent is to address safety issues like propane tanks, it would keep its new law narrowly focused on those issues, rather than “a broad excuse to criminalize people who have no alternative but to live outside.”
If not, Weitzman said, the ongoing federal lawsuit she filed on behalf of homeless clients and Smith’s Catholic Worker volunteers will be re-activated to ensure the city respects people’s constitutional rights.
In response to the lawsuit, she said, the city agreed to stop enforcing a ban on storing personal property in the Civic Center.
“The reason we have not pursed a restraining order in that [suit] is because the city has worked with us” to ensure people’s rights aren’t being violated, Weitzman said.
“If that were to change, we would certainly have to re-evaluate.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated Dwight Smith told the council the city paid $750,000 in legal fees over his previous lawsuit. The city did not pay for the legal fees, according to Smith. We regret the error.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.