Anaheim Approves Homelessness Policies Focused on Housing

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC contributing photographer

Hundreds of tents, makeshift shelters and other belongings of the homeless community line the bike trail along the Santa Ana Riverbed near Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

The Anaheim City Council Tuesday night unanimously approved a series of policies aimed at guiding the city’s long-term approach to homelessness, an action that comes as Orange County officials are clearing more than 500 homeless people from a camp along the Santa Ana riverbed near Anaheim’s Angel Stadium.

Anaheim officials have faced mounting public pressure over the past year to address the growing homeless population, both from advocates who say the city has failed to address needs like shelter, sanitation and storage, and from residents who say growing encampments are making their neighborhoods and parks less safe.

The Homeless Policy Working Group, a committee formed in June at the request of Councilman Jose Moreno, sought to review all of the city’s current efforts to tackle homelessness.

The group’s membership includes three council members, local activists, residents, and representatives of county Supervisor Shawn Nelson, state Assembly members Sharon Quirk-Silva and Tom Daly, and state Senator Josh Newman. Some residents criticized the board’s membership as skewed toward the interests of advocates for the homeless, prompting the council to add two more members later on.

The working group met eleven times and received 91 public comments between July and November 2017.

The City Council’s vote unanimously approved the group’s recommendations.

The recommendations include:

  • Adopt a “Housing First” model
  • Acknowledge the need short-term to provide some form of emergency shelter
  • Provide opportunities for homeless people to get vaccinated, access restrooms and receive other sanitary services
  • Review the Anaheim Police Department’s enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance
  • Explore all possibilities to develop a “sustained funding stream” to fund a Housing First Model
  • Target affordable housing units for extremely low-income and low-income households
  • Explore leasing city or city Housing Authority-owned land to developers building permanent housing for the homeless
  • Ensure the city budget includes adequate funding for homeless services
  • Explore planning and zoning changes to prioritize affordable housing development

The Housing First model is an approach to tackling homelessness touted as a best practice by federal housing officials and advocates for the homeless. The idea is that people will be more successful and stable if they are first placed into housing, and then are given services to address substance abuse issues, mental health problems and other factors that contribute to homelessness.

Councilman Steve Faessel and Councilwoman Lucille Kring raised concerns about language calling for better sanitation for the homeless.

Earlier this year, the city and county removed portable toilets placed on the Santa Ana Riverbed by a group of activists, citing the fact that the group did not have a permit for the toilets. One of those activists, attorney Mohammed Aly, also was arrested and cited for pouring bleach into a trench of water near a water fountain at the riverbed, which he said was an attempt to prevent the spread of Hepatitis A.

Activists have also called on the Anaheim council to keep park bathrooms open overnight, a request officials have declined citing concerns about security and drug use.

“Does this mean we are going to provide public restrooms at all the encampment sites? Does this mean we are going to open park bathrooms 24 hours?” Faessel asked. “I just can’t support that if we’re going back to opening park restrooms.”

Sandra Sagert, the city’s new homeless czar after the departure of former assistant city manager Kristine Ridge, said the issue is “more global than just restrooms,” and that the proposal does not make any reference to bathrooms at the riverbed or at parks.

Sagert, responding to further questioning by Faessel, said the recommendation to review enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance is not a call for the law to be eliminated.

Kring also questioned how the city would create a sustainable funding stream for homeless housing. The report broadly suggests that city staff explore new fees, taxes or bonds.

“The economy is great now but it’s not going to be great. I have serious problems with putting a line item in June that says this is sustainable funding for homeless because there’s other ways to do it,” Kring said.

Moreno said federal grant money the city has relied on in the past to support affordable housing is steadily decreasing.

“Grant money that we’ve depended on in the past are drying up, because a lot of folks are saying at a national level that we need to reduce government,” Moreno said. “This is not to replace the county but it’s to say, we as a city have to look at protecting ourselves with some funding.”

Mayor Tom Tait, who recently attended the US Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., said he and the mayors of California’s 11 largest cities have agreed to push for a bill in Sacramento for new state funding for homelessness that would go directly to cities.

Both Kring and Councilwoman Kris Murray said the city should continue to look at ways to reduce costs for housing developers rather than attempting to impose new taxes and fees on them.

Late last year, the City Council began exploring ways to generate new funding for affordable housing, including ordinances that would require developers to devote a certain percentage of new projects to affordable housing. Both Murray and Kring objected to such proposals.

Murray pointed to Grandma’s House of Hope, a transitional housing program for needy families. Last year the council waived a $14,000 conditional use permit fee for a project in Anaheim.

“Where we can reduce burdensome costs should be a front-line approach,” Murray said.

City Manager Linda Andal added that approving the recommendations would create “guiding principles” for staff as they come up with new proposals.

“This resolution is just to guide staff, a framework as we begin our work [so] we know where we’re starting from,” Andal said.

Any changes to the anti-camping ordinance or new programs would still have to come before the council for approval.

“I hear the council loud and clear – I don’t intend to put up a porta-potty without coming to the council,” she added. “I will reach out to the council on those types of policy decisions.”

Read the full report.

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