Huntington Beach officials are set to crack down on homeless activity in their city next week with a new proposed law that would outlaw people keeping their belongings — like medication and personal items — in public spaces like sidewalks and parks.
City officials have said homelessness will be one of their top priorities for the year, and have identified enforcement as an area that needed improvement.
Newly elected Council woman Natalie Moser said the ordinance is an attempt to balance competing priorities in the city.
“Which includes both protecting and preserving our public spaces for their intended uses, while also preserving the dignity and the property of people experiencing homelessness,” Moser told the Voice of OC in a phone interview Thursday.
The City Council will vote on the new policies at their next meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
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City staff in a report attached to Tuesday’s meeting agenda say the city has been responding “regularly” to complaints by residents about personal property being left in public places like “visible trash” and “clearly abandoned property.”
“In addition, hypodermic needles and syringes have been discovered among this property,” the staff report says, adding staff are currently “limited in their ability to remove this property unless it is clearly refuse, or is soiled or otherwise contaminated to the degree that it poses a public health risk.”
Staff are also pursuing changes to city law that would allow them to level criminal enforcement on people who would violate the new laws. Other cities in the county like Anaheim, Santa Ana, Westminster and Costa Mesa already have similar laws in place.
The city under the proposed revisions to its municipal code identifies “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.”
Violation of the laws could lead to a misdemeanor charge or an “infraction at the discretion of the City Attorney,” among other possible consequences.
If approved, signs will be erected warning people that their property can be confiscated and on them will be a phone number and address where information on how to get their belongings back will be provided.
The new proposed 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.
Belongings contaminated with urine, feces, mold or mildew as well as items deemed by the police as “an immediate danger to the public health or safety” can be thrown out without notice.
So where will houseless folks be able to store their belongings?
Moser said the newly built shelter in the city has storage units for people.
“All people who are going to the navigation center do have access to a storage unit that they have directly outside of the facility,” she said.
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 shelter in the city.
At the same time, city officials acknowledge that the shelter and enforcement will not put an end to homelessness.
“There’s nothing illegal about being homeless but we do have rules against camping and loitering in certain public spaces,” City Manager Oliver Chi said at the strategic planning meeting in January.
“We can do enforcement activities to reclaim some of those spaces. They are places that are for all the public to enjoy and we’re going to target enforcement activities in those areas.”
Moser herself also acknowledged that the shelter is not a long term solution but will help get people off the street and navigate them to the services they need.
She said a multi-pronged approach is necessary to address homelessness.
“We need to deal with affordable housing, we need to deal with mental health and I think that those are things that are happening, but they’re all happening kind of concurrently,” Moser said. “We want to address all of these challenges, but we can’t do them all successfully at one time but we are working towards that.”
The city is looking to work with Be Well OC, an organization dedicated to improving mental health in the county, to address issues of addiction and mental health in the homeless community.
Moser said such services in the county didn’t exist six months ago and the potential for cities to use them provides a lot of hope.
The proposed ordinance prohibiting storing belongings in public spaces would take effect a month after it’s adopted.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.