Santa Ana officials will make El Centro Cultural de Mexico — a community center near downtown where Voice of OC rents office space — pay nearly $40,000 to the city for letting homeless people sleep on El Centro’s private property earlier this year. 

El Centro’s refusal to call the police, on what had become a full-blown encampment on its parking lot during the first half of 2021, led to a moral wrangle with city officials.

Specifically, between El Centro’s call to find better services for the unhoused and the numerous trash and safety complaints which city officials said were flowing in from surrounding residents — many in the Willard Neighborhood. 

A split City Council made the decision to pursue the money from El Centro at their Tuesday meeting, which officials say will recover the $39,604 they spent when they obtained a court order to move in on the property and address the encampment themselves. 

Council members Phil Bacerra, David Penaloza, Nelida Mendoza, and Thai Viet Phan voted in support of the move. Council members Jessie Lopez, Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, and Mayor Vicente Sarmiento voted against it. 

§

“El Centro would be severely hurt by this charge, as would our ability to pay for our mortgage. We support essential workers, tenants, domestic workers and this work would be compromised,” the center wrote in a Nov. 15 letter to the city ahead of the meeting. 

City officials in turn say a payment plan with the center is possible, and their recourse is to record a lien on the property which wouldn’t have to be paid until the building changes owners. At the same time, some city staff on Tuesday voiced a desire for the center to pay up sooner. 

Those speaking in support of El Centro during public comments Tuesday said the encampment arose out of forces beyond the center’s control, and that it’s incumbent on city and county officials to get people off the streets in the first place. 

Namely, the encampment grew in size after the County of Orange quietly closed its last walk-in shelter in February. 

That fact prompted Mayor Sarmiento, before the vote, to even pose this idea: 

Why not seek some payment from the County of Orange, as well?  

City staff during the meeting said it wouldn’t be possible to waive the charges on El Centro, as the city executes abatement warrants on properties for city code violations on a regular basis, similarly charging each property owner for the staff time it cost to enforce the order.

Despite criticism of the county by some on Tuesday night, a majority of council members directed theirs at the community center.

§

“It’s perfectly fine to say we have a policy position of not wanting the city to come in and do whatever it is you felt the city was doing, but at the same time, those choices have consequences,” Phan said during the discussion. 

City Hall staff say they received 179 complaints regarding the accumulation of trash, debris and general lack of property maintenance at El Centro between April 22, 2020 and April 20, 2021. 

“And the consequences are 170-plus complaints of safety, of people feeling attacked and endangered in the neighborhood,” Phan added. “The argument that because El Centro does good things, culturally or socially for our community, is trying to say, ‘Please forgive us for violating the law because you like us.’ To me that’s wrong.”

Though not everyone supported the majority vote that night. 

“I’m not too open to seeing us take away resources from organizations already very limited, regardless of the fact that it did cause a lot of discomfort for residents,” said Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez.

Before the city executed its abatement warrant, the court order, and moved in on the property on May 13, officials and the center attempted to work out a deal. 

They signed a settlement where the city agreed to waive the fines it piled onto El Centro from December 2020 to January of this year — if El Centro could address the city code violations and remove the encampment within a 45-day period.  

That didn’t happen, with city staff in their agenda report blaming El Centro for the failure. Mayor Sarmiento before the vote recalled how negotiations between the city and El Centro were going well until the center’s lawyers got involved. 

Yet El Centro, in its Nov. 15 letter, blamed it on limited space at the county’s other shelters, as well as restrictions on other housing programs. 

“Most of the options for housing being provided by the city were outside the city limits, away from the services that the individuals needed,” the El Centro letter reads.

§

The City of Santa Ana also lacks its own shelter, currently, and has been sending homeless people from its city to the regional homeless “navigation” shelter in Fullerton. 

Asked on Tuesday whether the city had available beds during the encampment situation earlier this year, however, City Manager Kristine Ridge said: “Yes we did, and we provided shelter for a number of individuals from El Centro.” 

She also said some people at the encampment had spaces assigned for them at the Yale Shelter, but chose to be at the encampment. 

Phan disputed the notion that the council’s action that night would hit the center hard.

The city will invoice El Centro for the money, per the vote. Officials said that if no payment is made, the other option would be to record a lien on the property which the owner would have to pay in the event they sell it. 

“That means there’s no payment at the time and the payment would only occur if the property changes ownership and if the property is sold,” Thai said.

Planning and Building Director Minh Thai responded: “Of course, the owner can always, at any time before that, reconcile the amount with the city and the lien can be removed, as well.”

§

Councilmember Penaloza at one point attempted to chip away at the notion of El Centro as a community center with limited resources, separating the community organizations renting space inside the building from the actual owner of the building: 

“As public records show, (the owner) purchased this building in 2016 for $1.2 million. If anyone’s been paying attention to the market, I’m pretty sure there’s a good amount of equity in there that could easily be refinanced or even lower your mortgage payment and help pay back this money to Santa Ana taxpayers.”

Ben Vasquez, a schoolteacher and El Centro board member, responded to that statement in a Thursday text message: “We don’t have any full-time staff. No Executive Director. I noted nobody on staff makes over $40K.”

Councilmember Bacerra on Tuesday said the center, which he had criticized heavily during the encampment saga, is meant “to provide services and education,” adding that “we all see things we want to help out on and do something about” but “to try and go above your limit, you endanger the surrounding community.” 

“There are still problems on the site. You’re not getting it,” he said, referring to remarks by city staff Tuesday that they continue to get complaints about the property, even after they moved in on the encampment earlier this year.

Vasquez said homeless people continue to “come and go,” but “we are out there weekly asking them to leave.”

§

Bacerra framed the council’s action Tuesday, not as a penalty on the center, but repayment for money the city spent addressing the code violations. 

“This isn’t a penalty, this is reimbursement,” he said.

That’s not how critics see it. 

“It’s upsetting to think the city would come after us for $40,000,” said Luis Sarmiento, a volunteer with the Radio Santa Ana broadcast program which runs out of El Centro’s first floor, adding it’s an amount which, “for the city, I know you all would say, is ‘a drop in the bucket.’”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Santa Ana Active Streets Coalition (SAAS) rents office space at El Centro. It does not. Voice of OC regrets the error.


This Giving Tuesday, Support Voice of OC with Swagger

Buy a Voice of OC shirt, coffee mug or tote bag to show your support in the community while supporting your nonprofit newsroom. In response to initial feedback from some readers, we want to note that these kinds of efforts don’t cost Voice of OC anything to sponsor. Learn more »

§

» Start each day informed with our free and OC-focused newsletter.

» Be in the know with Voice of OC’s free breaking news text messages.

Since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.