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Santa Ana city officials moved Thursday to clear a high-profile homeless encampment outside a local cultural center, while also offering homeless people living there shelter, bringing the months-long saga and legal wrangling toward a close.

City officials expressed frustration with what they saw as a lack of follow-through by El Centro Cultural de México despite a commitment the center made to remove the encampment by April 30.

El Centro says it faced challenges clearing the encampment because the city hadn’t made sure everyone was offered an available shelter bed until this week – something City Manager Kristine Ridge disputes.

After the April 30 deadline came and went, city officials sought and obtained a court order – known as an abatement warrant – that allowed them to clear out the encampment.

They then posted a written notice late last week that they would do so – and on Thursday morning they followed through on it.

Cleanup efforts by city workers at El Centro community center on May 13, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Outreach workers and public works officials came to the center near the Santa Ana Civic Center and offered shelter to people before the planned clear-out.

“We have outreach workers, we have mental health workers, we have available beds for everybody on the [encampment] site,” City Manager Kristine Ridge told Voice of OC in an interview Thursday.

Ben Vazquez, a teacher who serves on El Centro’s board, said the group is happy to see shelter being offered to everyone but wonders whether city officials could have done so sooner.

“We’re so happy about this,” Vazquez said in an interview Thursday.

“I think this could have been done two months ago pretty easy,” he added.

“Now they have resources to make sure everybody there has housing. We had to [rally] at a city council meeting, we had to push with [federal] Judge [David O.] Carter…and now they’re doing the work we’re expecting and hoped they would do in the good faith that they didn’t have when they closed down the only [city] shelter in Santa Ana.”

City officials say they have been doing outreach and offered shelter to everyone weeks ago – and that the situation had become untenable for the surrounding community.

“We’ve been doing outreach consistently,” Ridge said, including two resource fairs weeks ago where “everybody was offered shelter that wanted it.”

“But the individuals who were willing to take it were few,” she added.

(Middle) An Anaheim based activist, William Camargo helps clean up efforts on May 13, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“We’ve had 179 complaints logged on that property. We have had over 80 police calls,” the city manager said.

“We had to go to a judge, we had to go to state court, and we had to provide evidence to him to show that this is a public health issue and we had to go in and abate the situation ourselves because the property owner has failed to do so,” she added.

Leading up to last weekend, El Centro volunteers said they got some of the people camped outside the building approved for shelter — but that there were few available places for them to go. 

The city recently closed its temporary shelter, the Link, and the only remaining one on Yale St. is more restrictive. 

Paul Leon, head of homeless nonprofit Illumination Foundation, recently told Voice of OC all the people who were at the Link were transferred to the shelter his group runs in Fullerton. To the best of his knowledge, he said, there are still around 45 more beds for people still out in Santa Ana.

About 20 or 25 people remained at the encampment before the city workers moved in Thursday, Vazquez said.

The city has about 75 or 80 available beds it secured at shelters in Fullerton, as well as at hotels and other locations, Ridge said.

Cleanup efforts by city workers at El Centro community center on May 13, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento told Voice of OC on Thursday that his understanding is that shelter and hotel beds are available for everyone at the encampment who wants a place to stay.

Brooke Weitzman, one of the leading attorneys for homeless people in Orange County, said she’s pleased the city “is leading today’s placement with healthcare and outreach workers, not armed officers.”

Yet she also questioned why it took months for the city to do so.

“Many people [previously] were never offered shelter or were told beds were full and they could get in when one opened,” Weitzman said.

“Did some people turn down being exported to Fullerton like unwanted trash? Sure. But many if not most were not offered shelter within the city because Yale is full, the Armory closed, and the City closed it’s only shelter at LINK,” she added.

“As we agreed, the City has [now] acquired available placements for everyone waiting (desperate for shelter) outside El Centro,” Weitzman said.

“It is disappointing that it took the city so many months to do what El Centro requested and have placements other than jail or a trip to [shelter in] Fullerton,” she added.

“It is also disappointing that the city attempted to dump responsibility for finding help on a small community nonprofit. But, we are excited for our clients who will get warm showers and beds to sleep in today,” she continued.

“Hopefully as so many other cities in OC and nationally move toward that model, Santa Ana will consider funding the more effective model that does not respond to poverty with police.”

City leaders say they’re not criminalizing homelessness, and now lead with trained outreach workers.

“I do think there is a complete misperception about the city’s approach to homelessness,” Ridge said.

“It’s not about criminalization. It is about outreach first. And we spend a lot of money on doing that outreach,” she added.

“Are police involved sometimes? Absolutely. there are some dangerous encampments. and to send outreach workers without security, it would be additional liability for the city.”

The Santa Ana Civic Center – near the neighborhood where El Centro is based – has long been the epicenter of homelessness in Orange County.

Years ago, when encampments were growing on the front doorstep of the county government’s headquarters, county officials’ main policy solution was to open a walk-in shetler, called the Courtyard Transition Center next to the existing encampments and gradually transform the entire Civic Center into a fenced-off construction zone.

Around that same time, hundreds of homeless people started to appear along the Santa Ana riverbed near Angel Stadium.

Then, to move that encampment, county officials used the Public Works department to dump rocks and sand along the riverbed area, which effectively cleared the encampment.

Earlier this year, county officials quietly closed the Courtyard Transition Center – the last walk-in, low-barrier shelter Orange County – just two blocks from the El Centro community center. 

The result was a full-blown encampment outside El Centro’s building, and a months-long saga of finger-pointing, fines, and a debate between El Centro, nearby residents, activists, and city officials about who was truly responsible for the ongoing homelessness crisis that continues to see people out on the streets.

Voice of OC reporter Brandon Pho contributed reporting to this article.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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