A partnership between Santa Ana officials and a Mexican cultural center to voluntarily clear a homeless encampment outside the center’s building appears to have fallen apart, and the city may forcibly clear the encampment by itself.

Now, city officials and the community center are criticizing each other for the persisting crisis.

It’s been more than 45 days since El Centro Cultural de Mexico — a community center where Voice of OC rents office space — struck a deal in March with the City of Santa Ana to get homeless people to voluntarily leave the property within that time frame. 

It’s now past deadline and the encampment has not been fully cleared, amid what some say is a lack of immediately available, nearby shelter beds and refusal by some of those camped outside the building to accept help.

Plastic bottles and other recyclables being cleared out from the encampment site at El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana on April 30, 2021. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

The city says it’s now ready to pursue an abatement order, which they say would empower them to move upon El Centro Cultural de Mexico’s property and remove the homeless themselves, on the grounds the center has allowed the encampment to become a public nuisance.

“The City of Santa Ana is seeking an abatement warrant to clear the El Centro Cultural de Mexico property of unpermitted activities,” said city spokesman Paul Eakins in a Tuesday text message.

Officials have previously said, in that scenario, they would make El Centro foot the bill for the removal costs — something that El Centro volunteer Ben Vasquez told Voice of OC could affect this small community center’s “funds to create a sustainable space,” which provides key programs to Latino families and children.

Fines by the city on El Centro have already totaled to at least $1,800.

The El Centro situation has raised many community questions about who is responsible for the city and county’s homeless crisis — balancing the need to get the homeless off the street without criminalizing them while also considering nearby residents’ quality of life.

There are also outstanding questions on what to do with homeless people who don’t want shelter or help. 

El Centro staff, organizers and volunteers assisted in clearing out the encampment site in Santa Ana on April 30, 2021. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

El Centro’s leaders have for months said their actions only come as a result of city and county officials’ failure to solve the homelessness crisis in the first place, as people remain on the streets despite available homeless shelters. 

They also point out that the only type of shelters remaining are more restrictive both on who gets admitted and when people can go in and out, after the county quietly closed its last low-barrier walk-in shelter in downtown Santa Ana earlier this year.

Yet Eakins in a statement said El Centro has allowed the encampment to grow over the 45 day period, “which is in violation of the settlement agreement.”

All the while, the issue has vexed residents and homeowners in the surrounding Willard Neighborhood, who say the encampment has impacted their quality of life and poses safety concerns for families and their children.

El Centro’s board chair Ben Vazquez assisting in clearing out the encampment on April 30, 2021. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Under the agreement, El Centro had 45 days — ending April 30 — to clear the encampment. 

Around 30 people remain outside the building after the deadline passed, said Vasquez on Tuesday, who added many people still there are willing to get placed into shelter — some of whom have even been approved — yet the city didn’t have enough immediately available beds by the 45th day. 

Over the past six months, the center refused to call police on the homeless people and instead challenged officials to find solutions that don’t involve cops clearing the camp or shelters that may not be a good fit for people with disabilities, substance abuse problems or mental health conditions.

Officials like Councilman Phil Bacerra, in a recent Voice of OC opinion piece, blame the community center for not cooperating with the city sooner. 

“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,” wrote Bacerra in his Tuesday opinion, published before the council meeting. 

Instead, Bacerra wrote, El Centro’s leaders had misconceptions about how the city addresses homelessness — something he said “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,” Bacerra wrote. 

For 45 days, and even before that, the city had made efforts through CityNet to connect those outside El Centro with shelters. 

While some of those efforts have successfully placed people into shelters, part of the reason the encampment remains is because the “majority of those living there (outside El Centro) declined offers of shelter,” said Eakins, the city spokesman, in a text message.

El Centro staff, organizers and volunteers arrived in the afternoon to provide food and transportation to the unsheltered if they needed it. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Bacerra’s opinion piece, which claimed El Centro alone “failed” the surrounding community, got much pushback from Vasquez and the community center’s supporters at the Tuesday meeting. 

“We entered a 45-day agreement with the city in good faith. The city came out twice, we’re out there 45 days. We hired two people, we’re a very small nonprofit, not a big budget, but … every day we’re out there,” Vasquez said, speaking in public comment.

“The city … says they brought port-a-potties and hand-washing stations (to the camp). They told the vendor to charge us. The city has told the vendor to charge El Centro as the city says, ‘Look at all this stuff we’re doing.’” 

The way Hairo Cortes, executive director of local activism group Chispa, saw it: 

“Council member Bacerra’s op-ed … makes you wonder whether the council member wakes up every morning and asks himself how he can make life worse for people who have very little.”

One resident, Tim Rush, took the city’s side during public comment, calling it “astonishing to me that these folks who are calling in and wanting to advocate for El Centro never for a moment stopped to make any accommodation for the folks who live in that neighborhood.”

Rush added: “El Centro has no business at all offering up their property as a homeless site. It’s not zoned for it, they don’t have the accommodations …”

Vasquez said the center has “worked really hard in good-faith” to keep its end of the deal with the city to clear the encampment, calling on officials to give the center more time and to find other situations for the homeless that remain, such as placement into a possible continuation of the Project Roomkey program.

A man secures a pick-up truck with belongings at a homeless encampment by El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana on April 30, 2020. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Project Roomkey was designed to house and isolate homeless people to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and city staff on Tuesday said there’s a narrow criteria for the amount of homeless people who would be eligible.

Councilman Johnathan Hernandez on Tuesday requested the city bring back more information on how to possibly continue the program in a way to address and resolve the El Centro camp. 

Bacerra criticized the idea, saying the project is limited both in scope and FEMA funding criteria and that “we have to be conscious of the fact we are representing a city that has shouldered a lot of the county’s (homelessness) burden and have to look out for our residents and quality of life.”

Mayor Vicente Sarmiento, on the other hand, said the city has been assertive — that because of its aggressiveness in getting the county’s other 33 cities to do their share, the county now has regional shelters. 

Even if the project is limited in scope, Sarmiento said it’s worth asking staff to figure out if the city can use it to its advantage: 

“I think we need every bit of ammunition in our tool belt. I want an analysis or something … some finality on this. Not just people who are speculating on it.”

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