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For months, the leaders of a longstanding Mexican cultural center near downtown Santa Ana faced a moral quandary and two choices over a growing homeless encampment in their parking lot. 

They could watch their fines from the city rack up for allowing the camp to form outside the building over the last several months, or call the police to clear the homeless people out — an option that gives leaders there pause over concerns they would feed into a regional trend of criminalizing the homeless. 

Now leaders at El Centro Cultural de Mexico, where Voice of OC rents office space, and City of Santa Ana officials could strike a deal to clear the encampment out within 45 days while also ensuring, to some extent, the people living there have a suitable place to go. 

But it’s unclear whether that deal will happen. 

City officials set a deadline of Friday evening last week for El Centro to accept their terms.

El Centro leaders, on the other hand, told Voice of OC on Monday they want to talk it out further with the city and ensure they know just exactly what they’re agreeing to.

It’s unclear whether officials now will stay at the table or go their own route of enforcement through a court order that would empower them to take care of the property themselves.

City Council members today are scheduled to discuss the situation in closed session.

As part of the settlement that the city put forward last week, city officials would waive the $1,800 in total fines leveled on the cultural center over the encampment if the center follows the settlement terms and resolves the issue by the deadline. 

The city would also have outreach workers through its services contractor, CityNet, place people camping outside the center with nearby shelters such as the one on Yale St. 

Officials would also provide port-a-potties and sanitization stations, and would partner with El Centro to host homeless resource fairs on site.

In exchange, City Manager Kristine Ridge, in a phone interview on Friday last week, said El Centro would have to clean up debris and trash in the adjacent alleyway and clear out the encampment by the 45-day deadline.

That requirement prompted concern for Ben Vasquez, a volunteer at the center, who says the alleyway is a public space adjacent to other properties and he doesn’t want more responsibility pinned onto the center than it deserves. 

“We’ll clean up our property,” Vasquez said on Monday. “They want us to clean the alleyway, well it doesn’t belong to us. It’s a public area. We want to be responsible for the things we actually do.”

Ridge on Friday said the city saw “days where the alleyway was inaccessible and it was a public egress issue” as a result of the encampment.

On the city’s proposal to connect people with shelters like the one on Yale St., Vasquez said not everyone camped outside the building wants to be connected with shelter — “It’s more intricate than that.”

The county, after all, recently and quietly shut down its last walk-in shelter in downtown Santa Ana, and people aren’t allowed to check themselves out of the other shelters nearby. 

When Fr. Dennis Kriz, a pastor at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton and homeless advocate, visited the encampment and asked people there about going into one of the nearby shelters, he recalled in a Voice of OC op-ed that one homeless person responded:

“They are prisons.” 

Vasquez, like many other homeless advocates, says shelter beds aren’t the solution to the region’s homeless crisis. He said he also wonders whether the city could find out who among those camped outside would be eligible for federal housing vouchers.

He said El Centro wants to work out the wording on some of the city’s proposed terms: 

“We both want the same outcome — we’re just making sure, at the end of the day, El Centro isn’t pinned for wording.”

City spokesman Paul Eakins on Monday voiced the some of the same sentiment: 

“I think ultimately what we would like is to resolve this amicably with them in a way that would allow us to collaborate and get the best outcome for everyone involved, so we can try to get shelter and services for people living there and work with El Centro to clean up the property.”

It’s unclear how willing the city would be to move forward with the deal in light of whatever term modifications El Centro proposes. 

Eakins said it’s uncertain where the city stands now, in light of the deadline passing. 

The city’s overhanging threat to El Centro, if no deal is struck, would be to obtain an abatement order from the court.

Ridge on Friday said the order would “allow us to go onto their property and notify all the homeless people and bring our own team and our own services.” 

The city, empowered by the order, could also address the outstanding property issues and send a bill to El Centro for the costs, Ridge said. 

“Right now the building is boarded up, and we are trying to find a balance between helping out this nonprofit with the horrific impacts happening to the surrounding neighborhood right now. We’ve received over 100 complaints,” Ridge said. 

In one letter complaint to the city, which Ridge and Eakins sent to Voice of OC ahead of their interview, one resident said he and his family lived “a mere 250 steps or so from this encampment” and that it could pose a risk to his children when school reopens. 

“I now get up in the morning and clean up the section of the alley that is closest to my home so that my children don’t come across any of this. I have had homeless get into the porch of my home in an attempt to get into my side yard only to be scared away by my dogs,” wrote the El Centro neighbor. 

Ridge said outreach workers on behalf of the city have already connected six people with the county’s Yale shelter. Several others have been referred to substance abuse and other support programs or are expected to soon be moved to a local shelter.

Vasquez posed the idea of moving people who don’t want to go to a shelter to another area that’s safe and makes sense for them to freely camp in, where social workers would know where to find them and connect them with services, while also rotating responsibilities around the encampment community for keeping the area clean. 

He said El Centro only faces this predicament because local officials have long reacted to homeless presence in public spaces by forcing them out, a stop-gap measure that he said only rotates the issue by different areas.

Just when exactly this will happen at El Centro — and where those cleared out will go next — remains to be seen.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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