A new city law targeting the roughly 175 homeless people camped in front of Santa Ana City Hall is scheduled to go into effect in December, after winning unanimous approval from the City Council.
City officials say the measure – which bans any enclosed spaces, along with food and medical services without prior city permission – is necessary to protect public health and safety, including city workers, people visiting government buildings in the Civic Center, and homeless people themselves.
But advocates for homeless people, including several attorneys, say it's unconstitutional and cruel.
The new law “jeopardizes the lives of the homeless residents of this city,” said homeless advocate Jeanine Robbins during the Oct. 17 council meeting, where the law was approved.
“To deprive the poorest residents of shelter – and I’m talking about things such as tents and tarps – when there is no formal shelter, much less housing space, available, is both horrific and unconstitutional. How dare you try to deny the rights of nonprofits and the faith based groups to serve the homeless residents with food, clothing, and shelter?”
The new ordinance makes it illegal for people to create “enclosed spaces” with any type of “upright structure or materials” – except when it’s raining – and bans the placement of any items the city considers to be obstructing the “general right-of-way.”
Additionally, it makes it illegal to provide any “organized food, medical or social services” in the Civic Center without first getting a permit from the city.
Those accused of violating the ordinance can be prosecuted either with infractions or misdemeanor charges. A misdemeanor conviction can carry up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. The new law is scheduled to go into effect Dec. 8.
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, the county’s two homeless shelters are usually full or nearly full.
Large numbers of homeless people have camped at the Civic Center for years, but 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.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said her office, which prosecutes violations of city law, will not enforce its tent ban against people who are in their tent at night and complying with police rules to make sure the area is clean so the public can access government services during the day.
“If a tent does remain up, however, and it’s filled with items 24 hours a day, and it’s impeding access and it’s interfering with the citizens’ rights to come down here, then we will actually prosecute those citations, and we’ve done so,” Carvalho said at last week’s City Council meeting, where the council gave final approval to the new law.
The proposed ban drew 71 public speakers who addressed the City Council for nearly two hours before the Oct. 17 vote. There were 58 speakers against the new bans and 13 people in favor of them.
Carvalho defended the legality of the ordinance, emphasizing it doesn’t ban homeless people, but rather is aimed at addressing “filthy and dangerous conditions that exist in the Civic Center today.”
“In our opinion, it is not unconstitutional to require permits. Cities across the United States require them. We are not prohibiting these services,” Carvalho said of the service providers.
“We are not asking these religious groups to stop doing what they do,” but simply creating regulations that ensure public health and safety, she said.
As for enforcing the city’s ban on tents at the Civic Center, Carvalho said the city can ticket people for erecting tents and sleeping in them, but is not doing that at night.
In addition to the new ban, the city plans to clear-out the Civic Center, where at least 175 homeless people live, for a “thorough cleaning,” according to city spokeswoman Alma Flores.
City officials say they will offer to store people’s personal belongings, and after the cleaning, people will be allowed back in, but not with items prohibited under the ordinance.
That cleaning is scheduled for “as close to” December 8 as possible, “assuming we have met all the obligations” to people living in the Civic Center, wrote Interim City Manager Cynthia Kurtz in an emailed response to questions.
"We will let people know that they have to move for the cleaning, we will offer to store any personal items they have or take any items they no longer wish to keep, and we will store those items they wish to keep," Kurtz wrote.
"Things that we will do that aren't required include offering services to assist them to transition into a different living environment and offer free transportation to pick up any items that we are storing at the city yards."
Supporters of the ordinance said the regulations were reasonable to protect public health when children are being put at risk by sharp needles left by homeless people at the city’s public library.
“This ordinance is not about taking away rights from the homeless,” said Mike Lopez, president of the city’s general employees union, Service Employees International Union Local 721.
“This ordinance is about trying to establish, once again, safety and health for all. To vote against this would be discriminating against everybody.”
Opponents suggested the ordinance would be used to harass homeless people and violates their rights.
“The fact remains that without narrowly defined limitations, this ordinance is susceptible to abuse by those who are enforcing it. This ordinance can be used to harass and violate those who live at the civic center, criminalizing them simply for existing,” said Katie Christy, who works with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange and the Civic Center homeless population.
“It strips those without shelter of their dignity and violates their basic human rights to privacy and property,” she added, calling the ordinance “inhumane and dangerous to those most vulnerable in our community.”
Opponents also said the council’s action will lead to a lawsuit that will cost public money.
“[The new law] is unconstitutional. It is going to bode poorly for the residents of this city and for the taxpayers that are going to foot the bill for [an] inevitable lawsuit,” said Mohammed Aly, a homeless advocate and lawyer with the Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition.
City Council members said Santa Ana has done far more than any other Orange County city to provide services and housing for homeless people, and urged other cities to do more to address homelessness.
“For many many decades this has been the problem that we’ve shouldered alone,” said Councilman Vicente Sarmiento. “For years it’s been our problem, and nobody’s wanted to help.”
A previous version of the ordinance banned all animals that aren’t service dogs, but the final version allows up to three animals, in addition to service dogs.
Mayor Miguel Pulido, who supported the ordinance, publicly asked several speakers who opposed the proposal, to provide their addresses before commenting.
Later, as speakers approached the microphone to comment, Pulido made a point of reading aloud the city where the speaker was from. He criticized homeless advocates who live outside the city and work with the Civic Center homeless population for their comments.
“All these folks that come in from out of town, from other cities, and they tell us that we’re not doing enough [and] what we need to do – you go back and you look at what those cities are doing, and they’re not even beginning to scratch the surface,” Pulido said.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.