Housing advocates want San Clemente elected officials to accept responsibility for their role in solving homelessness in the city.

The San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition held a rally Friday evening on the front lawn of the city’s community center. Over 50 people showed up — some of them counter protesters.

The majority demanded change from city officials to house unsheltered people. The protest was, in part, triggered by the planned removal of a homeless encampment with advocates pushing city officials for more money to address homelessness.

“We want San Clemente to take advantage of the plentiful resources that are available now,” said Kathy Esfahani, chair of the coalition in an interview hours before the protest.

Advocates like Esfahani say they are tired of what they describe as city officials’ failure to ask Orange County for their fair share of taxpayer dollars to house the city’s homeless people, especially with $12 billion over the next two years in the state 2021-22 budget allocated to housing and homelessness .

“The county is not going to send it south unless South Orange County cities ask for it. So that’s why we really need to put pressure on the cities to ask for the money and to act and to start working with nonprofits to house people,” Esfahani said.

Councilman Gene James said in a Friday morning interview that the city has had conversations with the county regarding homelessness. Later he showed up at the rally and spoke against a housing first solution. 

San Clemente Councilman Gene James applauds as counter protestors spoke out at the “House Unsheltered People Now” rally at the San Clemente Community Center on Aug. 6, 2021. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

“Obviously not much has occurred,” James said without elaborating further during the interview.

The city, he contended, has certainly done enough to address homelessness in San Clemente.

“We’ve invested in a homeless outreach worker. It would be my recommendation that we continue to have homeless outreach and within the confines of our budget, we’ve done everything we can,” he said.

James said the outreach worker contacts homeless people and tries to find them services through other cities or nonprofits.

“My number one priority is the taxpaying citizens of San Clemente. If you are homeless in San Clemente. We are willing to — through our outreach worker — provide you services,” he said.

Maura Mikulec, organizer for the San Clemente Affordable Housing Commission and South County Homeless Task Force, helps set up signs for the “House Unsheltered People Now” rally in San Clemente on Aug 6, 2021. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

In 2019, about 145 people were counted as homeless in San Clemente, according to the county’s point in time count that year.

Esfahani said social workers who work with the coalition have the names of 120 people who currently live on the street in the city.

Several people spoke at the rally, including members of the clergy. 

Signs calling to end homelessness were placed near where people spoke and sleeping bags were placed to represent homeless people at the encampment.

Paper plates decorated by local children representing homeless people in the city with cards on the back listing details about the person were distributed to people at the rally and raised in the air.

Arilana Tang Le, 3, spends a part of her third birthday at the “House Unsheltered People Now” rally at the San Clemente Community Center on Aug. 6, 2021. Linda Tang, her mother, came out in support of providing housing for the homeless. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

At one point a homeless individual who happened to be at the rally was arguing back and forth with a counter protester from a distance of each other. The man who described himself as homeless also criticized those at the rally calling for action from the city.

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Twenty-four individuals have a couple of weeks to pack up their belongings and leave the encampment on state-owned property near the city where they have lived for over a year.

“I’m sure there will be more indignities to come,” said Esfahani, who lives in San Clemente. “This was the spark for us to focus on addressing homelessness.”

The camp sits between San Diego and Orange counties on a small slab of dirt and shrubs between a coastal park fence and a highway.

CalTrans, the state’s transportation agency, owns the property and put camp residents on notice last month to leave by Aug. 13 before crews remove the encampment, arguing that it poses a fire risk. An initial eviction scheduled in July was postponed.

But Esfahani told the Voice of OC that because of public pressure CalTrans has once again postponed the eviction for another two weeks. Her group is happy there is a delay but hope the state agency will postpone the eviction further until Sept. 30.

Esfahani added the county has taken the job of housing the people at the camp seriously.

[Read: ​​CalTrans to Remove Homeless Camp Near San Clemente]

Sleeping bags were placed in front of the stage where speakers spoke at the “House Unsheltered People Now” rally in San Clemente on Aug 6, 2021. Activists displayed sleeping bags to represent the unsheltered in the encampment near San Clemente, which soon faces an eviction by the end of the month. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Meanwhile, some San Clemente residents feel unsafe and are bothered by the presence of the homeless on the streets of their coastal city — even turning hostile toward homeless individuals in the past.

Michelle Alexander, an over 30-year resident and business owner, said the rally was well intentioned but did not agree with the solution being proposed. She held a sign that read: “Hand Up Not a Hand Out.”

“I truly believe that putting someone in a building is not going to solve the systemic epidemic of homelessness,” Alexander said. “I believe the permanent supportive housing initiative is all about the money and not about helping the people and the taxpayers are going to foot the bill for this and we’re still going to have the problems.”

She said she supports getting people on the streets with mental health and substance abuse problems counseling services to give them the opportunity to become what she called a functioning member of society.

“This is a free country,” she said. “There are people who do want to be on the streets and it breaks my heart to see that — it’s their choice.”

Alexander said taking it out on the city is not a responsible approach to addressing homelessness.

“The homelessness epidemic in California is a consequence of bad policies in my opinion. And this started a long time ago,” she said.

When Orange County sheriff’s deputies and county health care workers forced people out of a North Beach encampment in 2019, they were met with applause from residents.

[Read: San Clemente Begins Anti-camping Enforcement at North Beach, Spurring Public Standoff]

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Last year, a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man, after the deputy 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.

“We have to treat people with compassion, we have to recognize that they’re suffering and instead of recoiling from them, advocate for them,” Esfahani said. “It is painful to see homeless encampments, because it’s an indictment of our society.”

County residents have identified housing and homelessness as one of the most important issues facing the area, according to the 2020 Orange County annual survey conducted by Chapman University.

It took lawsuits against cities and the county itself over the removal of the homeless from the Santa Ana riverbed to create more shelter space.

San Clemente has no shelter.

Shelter operators and homeless advocates argue that to really address the homelessness crisis affordable housing is needed to get people off the streets, lodging that they say is lacking in Orange County.

“One thing we can all agree on today is that nobody in San Clemente should be homeless,” said Helen Cameron, the community outreach director at Jamboree Housing Corporation based in Irvine. 

“Housing is the solution,” she said.

People in support of housing the homeless and counter protesters were present at the “House Unsheltered People Now” rally in San Clemente on Aug 6, 2021. Some signs read “Housing Ends Homelessness” and “Evicted by CalTrans” to “Hand Up, Not a Hand Out” and “No More Enabling”. Credit: OMAR SANCHEZ, Voice of OC

Meanwhile, cities across the county pushed back against state-mandated housing goals, filing appeals with the regional board tasked with asking cities to zone for 1.3 million homes across Southern California.

San Clemente was one of the cities that didn’t appeal its allocation of 982 homes.

Officials there have to zone for over 440 very low income to low income homes by October 2029 as part of their state-mandated housing goals.

Esfahani said her coalition formed in January of this year to advocate for affordable housing in the city.

San Clemente has a housing inclusionary ordinance which gives developers a choice: Account for low income housing in their building plans or pay the city what is called the in-lieu housing fee. 

The money generated from the fee is used by the city toward affordable housing.

The San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition wants the city to strengthen its inclusionary housing ordinance by increasing the in-lieu fee and increasing the percentage of low income homes developers must include in their plans.

The coalition sent a letter to the state’s housing and community development department with those concerns last month.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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