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For the first time in six months, the main parking lot outside El Centro Cultural de Mexico near downtown Santa Ana looks empty.

Over this past weekend, volunteers and leaders at El Centro were scrambling to find shelter and housing arrangements for the dozens of homeless people who came to call the Mexican community center home during the past half year. 

At the time, a small encampment remained on the other side of the building. 

Around 20 people remain camped out, said Ben Vasquez, a teacher and volunteer at El Centro, on Monday.

It’s unclear how many people who left over the prior weekend were placed into nearby shelters or motels — or left to another area. Vasquez said on Monday that he didn’t know and City of Santa Ana Spokesman Paul Eakins said the city didn’t know either.

City officials obtained an abatement warrant on May 4 to move onto the property and remove the homeless themselves. Attorneys for the homeless — concerned about a lack of enough homeless placement options in the city — objected, and filed for an emergency federal court hearing.

Attorneys for the homeless argued the city couldn’t remove anyone because the city didn’t have enough shelter bed spaces or placement options available.

Though U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter ruled over the weekend that the city could remove the encampment any time by May 18, refusing to intervene in an abatement case, according to the Orange County Register.

Eakins has declined to say when, exactly, the city would enforce the order. Vasquez on Wednesday said city officials told volunteers that they would give them a heads up.

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, said 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.

Yet not everybody outside El Centro wanted to be placed into shelter over the last six months, seeing the more restrictive shelters that remain in Orange County as too confining while advocates have said they may not always be suitable for people with mental health conditions or those living with disabilities.

“We want to prevent growth (of the encampment),” Vasquez said in a Monday text message, adding the center needs to house “all folks still on site who are willing to accept it.”

Earlier this year, the County of Orange quietly closed its last walk-in, low-barrier shelter in downtown Santa Ana — just a few blocks away from the 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.

Specifically, the encampment raised questions about what to do with people who don’t want shelter — people who want to be left alone — and whether removing the encampment would truly resolve the issue or merely shuffle it to another neighborhood to become someone else’s problem.

At the same time, some nearby residents in the surrounding Willard neighborhood became vexed at El Centro’s refusal to call the police on the homeless or ask the city to come in sooner — a refusal that officials and nearby residents say manifested into safety concerns for families and children.

Yet the county’s closure of the walk-in Courtyard shelter, homeless advocates say, left little options for those with little interest in the only remaining, referral-only and more restrictive shelters like the one on Yale St. 

Despite an initial settlement between El Centro and city officials to remove the encampment by April 30, the city ultimately went its own route when that deadline came and went, obtaining an abatement order from the court on May 4 which empowered them to move on the private property and remove the remaining homeless people themselves. 

Eakins on Monday said the city has two weeks from that date — ending May 18 — to move on El Centro’s property and enforce the abatement order. 

He declined to say when the city actually would. 

“The city has two weeks from that date to exercise the warrant, but we have to post notice at least 24 hours (before) taking action … It doesn’t mean we have to do it next day but we have a two week window,” Eakins said.

Vasquez said the remaining homeless people at El Centro have been moved to a smaller area as efforts are ongoing to find a place for them to stay.

Around 20 people remain, Vasquez said. 

At the peak of the encampment’s size, Eakins said the city observed around 75 tents on the property.

This area and much of central county has seen its homeless population shuffle from one place  to the next — almost routinely — over the last decade as officials often embark on removing them from one area after another. 

A homeless encampment swarmed around the Santa Ana Riverbed and the downtown Civic Center until officials cleared them in about 2017. The remaining homeless encampments clustered within the Santa Ana Civic Center were ushered out in 2018 after the County of Orange launched a large construction effort around the area. 

Then this past year, the county closed down the Courtyard Transition Center, a converted outdoor bus terminal, where some of the homeless who came to El Centro were formerly housed.

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