Stanton City Councilman Gary Taylor wants his fellow council members to start considering alternative resources and ways to enforce the city’s anti-camping laws on homeless people sleeping in public areas, like sidewalks and parks. 

It’s not the first time an Orange County city has tried to enforce anti-camping laws. 

The last time cities tried to stop homeless people from camping in public places landed virtually the entire county in a federal courtroom. 

In early 2018, the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa were taken to federal court for criminalizing sleeping on the streets, but not providing homeless people with an alternative place to go. 

[Read: Lawsuit Seeks End to Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Evictions; County Says It Won’t Stop]

Various settlements mandated the County of Orange and cities across OC to offer shelter beds and other services to homeless people before anti-camping laws are enforced.  

Taylor also wants the city’s homeless outreach coordinators to change the way they speak to homeless folks in Stanton who refuse to go to shelters.

“We should treat everybody with dignity and respect, but we have to make sure that we’re also coming across saying that everything isn’t just rosy,” Taylor said at a council meeting last Tuesday, when he asked to discuss ways to help enforce the city’s anti-camping laws.

Taylor’s proposal is still in its early stages, with him and other council members brainstorming ideas on how to fix the issue and directing staff to do a self-assessment on their approach to addressing homelessness to see what’s working and what’s not working.

“We’re working toward helping people but if they won’t (accept) help, then they need to make a decision to either move on or they’re going to be ticketed, and possibly go to jail,” Taylor added.

A view of the south end of the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment looking towards the 5 freeway from Chapman Avenue. Feb. 1, 2018 Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

Meanwhile, there are a variety of reasons why not all people living on the streets want to go to a shelter, homeless advocates like attorney Carol Sobel say. Sobel was also one of the attorneys for homeless people in the 2018 federal lawsuit against the county and OC cities.

In a Thursday interview, Sobel said homeless women who are victims of sexual assualt or domestic abuse panic at the thought of having to go to a shelter, where they often live with scores of other people.

“For a lot of people, if you’re assaulted over and over again, you’re going to be really wary of being in any shelter that doesn’t provide protection for women,” Sobel said.

A lawsuit filed by civil rights activists in December of 2020 highlighted those very concerns regarding Orange County’s homeless shelters.

[Read: Orange County’s Homeless Face A Hard Quandary: Suffer Sexual Harassment Inside Shelters or Risk Arrest, Lawsuit Alleges]

Sobel also said there aren’t enough beds available at the shelters and some people have health concerns.

Interim City Manager Zenia Bobadilla did not return a request for comment on how many beds the city had available at a shelter in Buena Park and at one in Placentia.

The creation of the beds stem from the federal lawsuit settlement. Stanton and other cities in North Orange County help fund shelter beds in the region.

Taylor’s comments came one day before county officials held a news conference when they announced that they counted over 5,700 people living either in the streets or at shelters in OC following this year’s survey of the homeless population.

The survey found that 3,057 of those people were living on the streets of Orange County. 

In Stanton, surveyors counted 210 homeless people with about 62 of them living on the street, according to the data.

Click here to see the 2022 Point in Time Count.

Stanton City Hall. Credit: JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

Stanton Mayor David Shawver said at last week’s city council meeting that he’d like the city to hire private security to patrol both private and public properties and address lower level crimes that Sheriff deputies don’t have time for like graffiti and public nudity.

Shawver said there’s interest from business owners on a program like this – some of whom are paying up to $10,000 a month on security.

“The major players in this are going to be our business community that are very anxious to participate in a program that I just discussed, in cooperation with the city, so that we can actually get boots on the ground, and some immediate response to some of the lesser infractions in our city that need to be addressed,” he said at the meeting.

“Because if we let it fester, those small infractions continue to grow to become very impactful.”

Sobel criticized the idea of bringing on private security to address public safety concerns regarding homeless folks.

“It’s difficult enough to get regularly trained police officers not to violate people’s rights. It is impossible not to wind up with incredible liability, if you hire private security guards,” she said.

At the same meeting, Councilwoman Carol Warren said Stanton officials should talk with business owners to improve public safety and called to “reconstitute” the city’s business alliance.

“Even if it was just a quarterly meeting, I think starting that business alliance again would be a good platform to do a lot of good for the businesses in the city,” she said.

To read more on how Stanton is addressing homelessness, click here.

A New Approach to Addressing Homelessness

As Stanton city council members contemplate increasing policing of homelessness folks, cities across Orange County started to rethink their approach to addressing the homelessness crisis.

Cities like Huntington Beach and Garden Grove are moving away from using police officers as homeless responders and instead contracting with Be Well OC to use social workers to handle calls on mental health and homelessness.

[Read: How Will Cities Deploy New Mental Health Response Network for Homeless Calls?]

The switch came after the federal lawsuit forced the creation of new shelters across Orange County following the eviction of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed in 2018.

Sobel, who was lead co-counsel in the lawsuit, said criminalizing homeless folks doesn’t work.

“What happens more than anything else is people get a criminal record – it then becomes a barrier to housing, it becomes a barrier to shelter, it becomes a barrier to services,” she said. 

“We live in an economic environment at the moment where people can’t afford to pay the rent or pay their gas for their car, or pay their food and to decide that you’re going to put people in jail, when more and more people are becoming unhoused because of the rampant inflation and three years of a pandemic is just unseemly.”

Two signs expressing people’s opinion of the county’s eviction of the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp shown here on Feb. 1, 2018. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

In the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge David Carter decided OC cities and the county government can’t enforce their anti-camping laws without providing shelters for their homeless populations.

So cities agreed to build shelters, some even partnering up with other cities in the creation of those shelters. 

Stanton joined 12 other cities including Anaheim and Fullerton to share the costs of two shelters – one in Placentia and one in Buena Park. Host cities receive priority for those beds.

According to Stanton’s city website, the opening of a shelter in Buena Park in July 2020 “restored” the city’s ability to enforce anti-camping laws.

“The City of Stanton, under this mandate to comply, will maintain local control over enforcement of its own anti-camping ordinance in public areas, including public sidewalks, city hall, libraries, parks, and neighborhood sidewalks,” reads the city’s website.

Other cities like Placentia have since started enforcing laws against the homeless.

[Read: Placentia Joins OC Cities’ Homeless Shuffle: City Cracks Down on People Sleeping in Cars, Public Spaces]

Sobel said in a follow up interview Monday that just because Stanton has access to beds in Placentia and Buena Park doesn’t mean they can start enforcing anti-camping laws under Carter’s ruling.

“They can’t enforce it until 60% of their homeless population is sheltered or housed and I don’t know that they’ve reached that number and if they’re reaching that number, as I said, they’re doing it by excluding people from other cities because they don’t have a shelter of their own,” she said.

But shelters are only a temporary solution – a conclusion not only homeless advocates like Sobel have reached, but one routinely acknowledged by shelter operators in Orange County themselves.

They point to transitional housing and affordable homes as the best way out of the homelessness crisis in a county starved for housing.

The Fight for Affordable Housing in OC

In an effort to tackle a statewide housing shortage, state officials have upped the pressure on city officials to zone for more affordable housing and housing in general between 2021-2029.

Amid the pressure, local city officials have tried to push back on the number of homes they’ve been mandated to find space for by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) – a board made up of elected officials from the region.

In Orange County,  cities – together – have to zone for over 180,000 new homes of which over 75,000 have to be for very low to low income families.

[Read: New Housing Plans Pit OC Cities Against Sacramento Over State Mandated Housing Goals]

In Stanton and other cities in the county, officials have started eyeing aging and rundown motels to convert them to housing for homeless people.

The motel conversions are a part of Project Homekey — state grant funded program to buy motels and turn them into permanent homes for homeless folks with onsite supportive services like mental health services.

The Tahiti Motel and the Stanton Inn & Suites are being converted into housing.

The Tahiti Motel in Stanton, proposed site of new housing for the homeless community, on Feb. 25, 2022. Credit: CAROLINE LINTON, Voice of OC

At the same time, there are already homeless people living in these motels and one Tahiti motel resident expressed concerns to Voice of OC about being put back on the streets by the construction before they can be put in a home and ending right back on the street.

[Read: Homeless People Living at Two Stanton Motels Could Soon Be Back on the Streets]

Is Housing Enough?

While state officials are applying pressure on cities to increase their housing stock, they are also looking at another way to get people off the streets.

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state officials proposed a plan to put homeless people with mental disorders under their control through court ordered “CARE” plans.

[Read: Is Forced Mental Health Treatment, Not Housing, the Way to Solve Homelessness in Places like Orange County]

That approach however is worrying many homeless advocates who say the plan would just conceal the homeless issue and take away people’s freedoms while not really addressing the problem.

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

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