San Clemente Begins Anti-camping Enforcement at North Beach, Spurring Public Standoff

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

San Clemente residents applaud as one person spoke to a television news reporter, voicing the group's concerns about homeless people camping in North Beach during the May 24 evictions.


San Clemente pushed ahead with anti-camping enforcement Friday when county healthcare workers and Sheriff’s deputies asked North Beach homeless camp residents to pack up their tents and move to a city lot, despite a fresh lawsuit against south county cities.

The Friday evictions began at noon and lasted about three hours. It was one of the largest public standoffs between residents and homeless people in the county since homeless lawsuits began in January last year, according to various officials present.

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Sheriff’s deputies, along with County healthcare workers, walk the parking lot at San Clemente’s North Beach to offer homeless people a ride to the camp on a city-owned lot nearby after they took their tents down. May 24, 2019.

“This city is the only place I’ve felt in danger from the residents,” said homeless attorney Brook Weitzman as evictions were underway. “I feel unsafe.”

About 70 to 100 residents, according to Sheriff’s deputies, were on site at least an hour before social workers and other staff arrived to begin the clear out.

The residents appeared at the parking lot to observe the relocation effort, occasionally heckling Weitzman and some of the 7-10 homeless people estimated by the county to have been relocated. As the relocations wrapped up, one man remained at the parking lot after disassembling his tent and was considering moving to the city yard, according to Braun.

“As long as he does not reassemble his tent and follows laws and municipal codes” banning sleeping in public spaces, “he is allowed to stay in the area,” said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

Some residents got in Weitzman’s face as she tried to defend the homeless people and the lawsuits, prompting Weitzman to complain numerous times to sheriff deputies who stood by to make sure none of the arguments got physical.

One woman, walking by, said “so long, fucking losers” to homeless people taking down a tent in the back end of the parking lot after agreeing to relocate to the city yard.

“I just can’t imagine how a homeless individual could expect, under these circumstances, to meet with a county health care worker (and) have a real honest conversation about what their needs are,” Weitzman told a reporter.

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

County healthcare workers speak to Steve Gustafson during San Clemente’s North Beach homeless camp evictions. Gustafson was offered help taking his tent down and a ride to the nearby city-owned lot where homeless people are allowed to camp following an urgency ordinance by the City Council. May 24, 2019.

Around the same time the relocation effort began, Weitzman and fellow homeless attorney Carol Sobel filed another lawsuit against south county cities for a lack of homeless shelters. They have also sued the cities of Anaheim, Orange, Costa Mesa, and the County over homeless policies during last year’s Santa Ana riverbed homeless camp evictions, which led to a string of new shelters coming online mostly in the north and central part of the county.

The two attorneys haven’t filed for a temporary restraining order yet because San Clemente attorneys are moving to get Judge David O. Carter recused from the case because they contend he’s not impartial, Sobel said. Carter oversees the various federal lawsuits on homelessness in the County,

“We’re going to file it (restraining order request) and see what happens. But we need to respond to the motion to recusal first and then we need to get this motion (restraining order) filed,” Sobel said.

The anti-camping enforcement at North Beach follows an emergency ordinance unanimously passed by the City Council Tuesday, May 21, to designate a half-acre city maintenance yard as a homeless site so the city could ban sleeping on public property. City officials argued the new ordinance follows a 9th Circuit Court decision in September stating cities can only enforce anti-camping ordinances if enough shelter beds are available.

But Weitzman and Sobel argue the city’s ordinance doesn’t follow the 9th Circuit ruling because the city-owned space is structureless and outdoors.

Members of the public had been complaining about the tents at North Beach for weeks over threats to public safety and unsanitary conditions.

North Beach homeless resident Steve Gustafson was packing his belongings hours before the evictions began. He said he and his dog Pearl had been living at the parking lot for “the past few weeks.” Before that, he said he was at the Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana “all winter.”

Gustafson said although he believes the city yard he’s moving to doesn’t meet the 9th Circuit ruling, it’s “better than not having a place that’s secure. That’s gonna make it so it’s safe for my stuff to not get taken.”

“There are no rules out here for the homeless,” Gustafson said. “My dad raised me right. I know how to treat people. But nobody knows how to treat people right out here.”

Staff reporter Spencer Custodio contributed to this story.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.