Keeping personal belongings in public spaces like sidewalks or parks was a misdemeanor offense in Huntington Beach but may not be for long.

Critics have said that such a punishment is a punitive criminalization of homelessness. At the same times some residents have been complaining about finding abandoned property and trash — including hypodermic needles and syringes — in such spaces. 

The Huntington Beach City Council voted 6-1 at its Tuesday’s meeting to stop enforcing the law with a misdemeanor charge and instead penalize offenders with an infraction. Councilman Erik Peterson was the sole dissenter.

“I don’t agree with taking the misdemeanor out. It’s a tool,” Peterson said. “I think we should keep it how it is and we’ll leave it up to the law enforcement. They’re the ones that are dealing with this. None of you are.” 

The policy change is part of a new ordinance that amends the municipal code which bans storing personal belongings in public space in a way that city staff said would clarify restrictions they described as overly broad, as well as police procedure on enforcement.

The initial proposed changes still allowed enforcement of the law with a misdemeanor charge but added the discretion to enforce the law with an infraction instead. The majority of the council voted against using criminal enforcement and opted to change the wording of the ordinance to make the punishment solely an infraction.

“We need to balance competing priorities including our need to help the homeless with our need to protect our public spaces for everyone to enjoy. With that I support much of the changes being contemplated tonight but I do have concerns,” said Councilwoman Natalie Moser, who proposed nixing the misdemeanor charge.

“I think that we might be taking steps to criminalize homelessness here in Huntington Beach and I know that none of us here on the council want to do that.”

Additionally, the city under the revisions to its municipal code added a definition of “stored” personal belongings to include things like tents, bedding, sleeping bags, hammocks, and “personal items such as luggage, backpacks, clothing, documents, medication, and household items.”

The new policies would also allow staff to seize the property, provide people written notice that it was seized, and hold it for a period of time to allow people to recover their belongings from the police department.

Moser said the city is using a multi-pronged evidence based approach needed to address homelessness.

One of the avenues is a new homeless shelter.

Huntington Beach opened a homeless navigation center at the end of 2020 intended to not only provide beds but vocational training and mental health services, after years of trying to establish a temporary refuge in the city. The shelter allows the city to enforce anti-camping laws.

“Since then it’s proved to be one of the most important tools we have in doing what we always want to do with the homeless population which is first to offer help. It’s also allowed us — for those that refuse help — to be able to try to recover and reclaim some of our public spaces for everyone in the community to use,” City Manager Oliver Chi said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Chi said there are currently 46 people at the shelter and said a “number of folks” contracted the coronavirus and were moved to a facility in Fullerton for homeless people with the virus. He did not specify how many people exactly or where precisely in Fullerton they were moved.

At the same time, city officials have acknowledged in the past that the shelter will not put an end to homelessness.

Some residents questioned why a city council — who named homelessness as one of its top goals for the year — is not looking at the root causes of the issue by prioritizing building affordable housing.

“I believe policy experts would agree that making progress towards permanent supportive housing is actually the direction that the city needs to prioritize,” Jennifer Rojas, a resident, said at the meeting. 

Council members recommended that staff regularly bring back data on the tickets issued after the ordinance is adopted and make amendments if necessary. Councilman Dan Kalmick suggested that staff report back in three month cycles.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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