El Centro Cultural de Mexico’s own stated purpose, according to the Articles of Incorporation that they filed with the State of California, is to “promote an understanding and awareness of the Mexican culture, history, arts, and traditions.” Unfortunately, El Centro has failed to fulfill their own purpose. What is more unfortunate for the surrounding community is that El Centro has failed to maintain their property on North Ross in a manner to promote a healthy and safe environment when they allowed over 75 tents of homeless individuals to camp on their site and the adjacent public alley within 125 feet of residents of the Willard neighborhood.

If El Centro had sought help from the City of Santa Ana, the homeless individuals would have been offered services months ago that would’ve helped them improve their lives. Instead, El Centro put their misconceptions of the City’s homeless services on full public display when their President, Ben Vasquez, told the Los Angeles Times, “The city wants us to let them come and give them tickets, harass them, or criminalize them.” It is clear from Mr. Vasquez’s comments that he and El Centro absolutely do not understand how the City responds to calls for service related to the homeless. The City of Santa Ana always starts engagement with homeless individuals by attempting to connect them with shelter or other services. This was done 6,592 times in the last year by CityNet, a non-profit organization that the City contracts with to attempt to connect homeless individuals with shelter, services, and housing. Most of CityNet’s outreach is done without a police presence.

Another aspect that El Centro has demonstrated that they do not understand is why providing homeless services is not permitted by the City on their site. Zoning standards are adopted to protect health and safety. El Centro’s site is located on a P-Professional-zoned property. Homeless service centers are only permitted in Santa Ana on industrial-zoned properties that are located at least 500 feet away from any residential use or K-12 school. One only has to see the impacts that the encampments at El Centro have had on nearby schools and residents to understand why homeless service centers are not permitted near residences and schools in Santa Ana. Even if homeless service centers were permitted on El Centro’s site, they would’ve needed to contact the City and apply for a permit so that they could show the City that they were following the standards for a homeless service center, such as providing restrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. El Centro never contacted the City prior to allowing the homeless encampment on their site to grow and El Centro has not provided these basic elements for a homeless service center. The City provided multiple portable restrooms on the El Centro site, but occupants of the encampment do not always choose to use them, as demonstrated by pictures that I have received of the encampment occupants defecating in front of El Centro’s building for the public to see.

The current conditions at El Centro’s site, such as open defecation and used drug needles scattered about, are creating a danger to public health for the families and children of the surrounding Willard neighborhood as well as the Civic Center employees who use the parking structure across the alley from the El Centro site. Santa Ana Public Works has dispatched loaders, bulldozers, and a ten-wheel truck to perform cleanups of the trash scattered in the alley adjacent to the El Centro site.  Since June 1, 2020 the Santa Ana Police Department has responded to approximately 81 calls for service at El Centro’s site regarding incidents that include violence, trespassing, disturbing the peace, armed subjects, and narcotic violations. As one resident, who lives less than 400 feet from the El Centro site, wrote in a letter to the City, “It is now common (since the encampment began) to come across fecal matter, the smell of urine, used condoms and syringes along with trash in the alley… We the residents of the Willard community have all felt the rise in criminal activity which has coincided with the increasing population of this encampment.” The working-class residents of Willard are seeing their quality of life dramatically diminish by El Centro’s decision to allow the homeless encampment to exist on their site.

The homeless encampment on El Centro’s site continues to grow today in spite of El Centro voluntarily entering into a settlement agreement with the City of Santa Ana where El Centro agreed to have the homeless individuals off of their site by May 1. Since El Centro has failed to live up to their end of the settlement agreement, in addition to violating the City’s zoning standards, the City needs to protect the residents and taxpayers of the Willard neighborhood and begin the process of proactively providing off-site shelter and services to the homeless individuals in a manner similar to how the City successfully and compassionately addressed the homeless encampments that overran the Plaza of Flags in the Civic Center in 2018.

What El Centro has done on their site to the schools and residents of the Willard neighborhood should never be tolerated on any private property in Santa Ana. El Centro should stick to their stated mission of promoting an understanding and awareness of the Mexican culture, because by allowing the homeless encampment to continue to exist on their site, El Centro continues to fail the community.

Phil Bacerra is a Santa Ana City Councilmember.

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