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Jammed between a coastal park fence and highway below south Orange County, a small slice of dirt and shrubs has become a home for more than 20 people who otherwise wouldn’t have one — filled with tents to shield people from the beating sun, and even a community garden.

Now bulldozers may be on the horizon for those living there, many of whom say they’ve been pushed out of the neighboring City of San Clemente over the years, as the state officials who control this piece of land have seemingly run out of patience for them.

The encampment, and the question of what to do with the people living there, lies right outside San Clemente’s city limits — tangled between two counties, Orange and San Diego, and the state’s transportation agency CalTrans, which owns the property. 

Trees and bushes surround the area, which is next to the Trestles Beach Trail, while high temperatures have baked the CalTrans property — especially the people on it — over the course of this summer.

In turn, CalTrans argues the encampment poses a fire risk and is giving everyone until August 13, possibly August 12, to leave before they remove the encampment, said the agency in a written response to Voice of OC questions through spokesperson Darcy Birden. 

That’s after the agency intended to force people out much sooner. Birden said CalTrans served the encampment a notice on July 9. Advocates said a forced removal was initially set for July 16. 

The notice stoked outrage among local advocates for homeless people over the apparent lack of outreach and preparation afforded to those camped out.

A community garden sits at the heart of the homeless encampment below San Clemente’s city limits. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

“Our group kind of put our heads together and thought, ‘What can we do?’” said Kathy Esfahani of the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition. 

What followed was a public pressure campaign by the advocates which got San Clemente’s representative Orange County Supervisor, Lisa Bartlett, involved.

Bartlett on Monday told Voice of OC she got CalTrans to delay the encampment removal by up to a month, “so that the county would have adequate time to reach out to the homeless individuals in this encampment and work to get them connected to shelter/PSH and wraparound services.”

Outreach providers through the county’s Health Care Agency will go out to the encampment this Friday to offer people services , said Jason Austin, the Health Care Agency’s Director of Care Coordination, in response to Voice of OC questions on Tuesday.

For years, people had come to this area to live out of sight from the city’s wealthier residents and local officials, said Maura Mikulec, another advocate for those out on the streets.

“This was a safe place, hidden from the hostile eyes of some in the community — a refuge for people.”

Maura Mikulec, another advocate for those out on the streets

Nearly everyone currently camped in the area used to live in San Clemente, Mikulec said during an interview at the encampment on Monday. 

San Clemente City Manager Erik Sund, at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, said some of the people there are from San Clemente and some are from San Diego.

Some people staying at the encampment told Voice of OC they struggle to live a more functional life due to drug addiction, while others hold down part-time work, earn disability compensation, or recycle bottles and cans for money but can’t afford to get off the streets.

People living at the encampment, and advocates who have come down to offer support and aid, say CalTrans — despite clearing prior encampments in this area in previous years — had largely left them alone. 

“We’ve kept it pretty clean. For a while, it was atrocious, and that’s when they came through and took out like dump trucks worth of stuff,” said one homeless man, 42-year-old San Clemente native William Brown, in an interview at the encampment on Monday. 

Since then, Brown said he and a few others routinely pick up trash around the encampment and it now “stays relatively clean, so CalTrans largely left us alone.” 

Brown said he’s spent nearly his whole life in San Clemente, save for a brief time he spent in San Diego after his parents split up, and that he’s been homeless for about five years since he became legally blind and unable to work. 

“I don’t know why they can’t just let us be,” Brown said, dodging pieces of glass on the dirt trail as he walked back to his tent barefoot. Housing anywhere is too expensive, even as people work, he said, adding the homeless will keep getting kicked around no matter where they go.

Advocates say most of the people camped out are from San Clemente. City officials say there are also people from San Diego County. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

San Clemente residents who aren’t homeless, on the other hand, welcome CalTrans’ actions.

“A lot of citizens will be excited about the progress we made down there.”

Resident Rick Loeffler in public comments during the City Council’s Tuesday night meeting, also lauding the recent removal of another homeless encampment along El Camino Real, just north of the train station

He said he and others are pleased with how officials have been responding to homeless presence in their city over the last few months. 

Residents of the idyllic coastal community have long voiced frustration that they feel unsafe or bothered around people out on the streets. 

In turn, some residents have been hostile toward local homeless people over the years.

A May 2019 effort to force out homeless people camped on the city’s North Beach resulted in such a large public standoff that homeless advocates, at the time, said they felt unsafe trying to connect people with services, as residents came down to the beach parking lot and applauded the removal of tents while ecstatically waving goodbye to the people living in them.

Last year, a Sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, after he and his partner stopped Reinhold for suspected jaywalking in the city. The deputies were tasked with homeless outreach. 

The killing prompted protests and demonstrations in the days following. 

At Tuesday’s council meeting, officials spent time telling members of the public their “Do’s and Don’ts” around helping the homeless in the city. 

Actions that officials deemed as acceptable: Donating to and volunteering for homeless support organizations, treating homeless people with respect, “answering requests with a firm ‘NO,’” and reporting illegal activity. 

Actions they deemed as unacceptable: Giving people food and money.

Councilmember Gene James, asked what he wants to see come out of the unfolding situation, said his “primary objective” is the “safety and security of the people of San Clemente as it relates to this illegal camp on CalTrans property.”

Asked whether he’s also concerned for the well-being of those at the camp who may be from his city, James said it’s on the counties to make the determination of where those camped out should go.

He said he’s also “inclined to believe the City of San Clemente has little to no accountability” as it regards the camp.

Esfehani, on the other hand, says much of the issue comes out of a lack of political will in San Clemente for things like more affordable housing, supportive services, and a homeless shelter — the possibility of which, in other wealthy OC cities, has historically roused huge protests. 

“The amount of homeless people here is a crisis for a small town like ours,” Esfahani said. “The city has been very hostile to the homeless, they have a history of evading their responsibility to help.”

She added: “There’s not enough affordable housing, no shelter, compounded by the possibility that people on the CalTrans property may be dumped out on the street … that will be a lot for the community to absorb.”

William Brown, 42, is one of dozens of homeless people camped out on CalTrans property. He said he’s been homeless for five years, and is legally blind. Credit: BRANDON PHO, Voice of OC

James said his city does indeed “invest in homeless programming,” pointing to the recent hiring of a homeless outreach staffer at City Hall.

Drawing another example, he said City Hall significantly reduced the rent it charges to the local Family Assistance Ministries women’s shelter.

“This is a regional issue. For the city of San Clemente to go out on its own and try to deal with this would be an absolute budget buster — the county needs to step up to the plate, they have resources for mental health, addiction.”

San Clemente Councilmember Gene James

That’s not how Esfehani sees it. 

“Every city in OC has a responsibility to shelter the homeless who live within their boundaries, so I think San Clemente very much has a responsibility to the people identified as homeless in San Clemente during the last point-in-time count.”

“It’s funny, every city says it’s a regional issue as a way of avoiding responsibility on their own.”

Kathy Esfahani of the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition

The County of Orange’s last point-in-time count in 2019, which takes stock of the region’s homeless population, counted a total of 145 homeless people in San Clemente at the time.

Esfehani said “the funds (to help) are there. There are plenty of dollars available from the federal, state, and county government, but San Clemente has to ask for them.”

Now she and others are lobbying to get people at the encampment into motel rooms in the city, and to also secure funding for a program that would provide the supportive services that people from the encampment need to properly transition — and adjust — into a housing situation. 

Brown said people don’t just need a place to stay temporarily, but support to make sure they don’t end up back on the streets:

“If I ever had just a motel room, nothing else, I’d almost never be in there. I’d still be outside doing things in order to try and improve my life.”

The planned sweep comes as CalTrans has taken on similar efforts to force homeless people off its property across the state. Earlier this month, the agency removed a camp under a highway in the City of San Rafael, in Marin County. 

The agency also emptied a camp in Santa Cruz this year.

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

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