For years, homeless people would come by the red roof house on 4th Street in Santa Ana for help with the basics: Personal documents, mail collection, maybe motel vouchers on a good day.
And on their way back out the door, they’d likely take a pastry from the faith-based center called Micah’s Way — a small parting token in the service of Christian ministry, but an unpermitted property use in the eyes of Santa Ana city officials.
After refusing to certify the center’s occupancy certificate last June, on the basis of unauthorized food distribution, the city and homeless resource center are now locked into a legal battle.
On Monday, Micah’s Way attorney Edmond Connor filed a lawsuit against the city, citing federal protections for religious exercises like feeding and sheltering the homeless.
It accuses city officials of scapegoating Micah’s Way for neighborhood impacts from a nearby needle exchange program.
It also cites community meetings attended by former mayor Vicente Sarmiento, who lives nearby, and Councilmember Jessie Lopez, in stating that officials had a “predetermined” goal to relocate the resource center.
“We are aware of the lawsuit and it’s under review of the City’s Attorney office, but we have no further comment at this time,” said City of Santa Ana spokesperson Paul Eakins in a Wednesday phone call.
Contacted by a reporter on Wednesday, Sarmiento responded to the lawsuit with the following text message:
“As a result of the numerous complaints from neighbors, I asked city staff to work with the principal at Micha’s Way on a ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ agreement that would ensure that the valuable services could continue while an alternative site was identified.”
He continued: “The problem neighbors mentioned was that Micah’s Way drew many people experiencing homelessness to a densely populated residential neighborhood.”
Lopez declined to comment over the phone on Wednesday.
In an initial letter denying the occupancy permit for Micah’s Way, city workers around the building last March said they would observe the resource center’s president, Vaskin Koshkerian, handing out muffins or brown paper bags to people coming in and out.
On one occasion that month, officials wrote, “the City received a complaint that transients were sitting on E. 4th Street and N. McClay Street, eating and drinking food handed out by Micah’s Way.”
The complaints overall, per the city letter, were that people would “obtain food and beverages at the premises and linger in the neighborhood,” or that “transients” were “discarding food waste and scaring residents.”
Such activities, the city wrote, fell out with a surrounding city code that largely permits business offices for architects, chiropractors, realtors and lawyers.
The question over whether the government can use zoning codes to crack down on religious charity came up in past fights like the Isaiah House case of 2004, when Catholic Workers sued the City of Santa Ana over a code section banning missions near industrial zones – a law which the city used against Isaiah House but later repealed.
Connor, the Micah’s Way attorney, also represented Isaiah House in the 2004 case.
Now the religious protection question will determine whether or not Micah’s Way must leave its founding mandate, amidst the city’s threat of penalties and prosecution.
“The city is preventing Micah’s Way from exercising its religious beliefs in providing food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty as their gospel reading tells them to do,” said Connor in a Wednesday phone interview.
He said it will come down to what the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 “really protects.”
The Congressional statute prohibits cities, counties, and other public agencies from using land use regulations to burden a religious exercise, unless such a burden furthers a compelling governmental interest and constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
When the matter went into mediation before a hearing officer last year, a retired judge named David Chaffee cited that same religious protection law in telling the city to find a less restrictive way of limiting the site’s land use.
But an agreement has not been reached in the time since, and Connor said he and the resource center were “left with no choice” but to sue.
He cast the city’s stance into a longstanding pattern of similar crackdowns.
“In my experience, every 15 years the City of Santa Ana decides to come down really hard on the faith-based groups that help the homeless,” Connor said. “In 1990, the city used its police force to sweep the homeless out of the Civic Center, chain them to benches and charge them with crimes.”
“Well, that backfired,” Connor said of an event that eventually forced the city to settle lawsuits.
“15 years later, in 2004, the city tried to shut down the Catholic Workers at Isaiah House. That didn’t work. The result was, we went to court and now that place is serving even more homeless people,” Connor said.
He also referenced the city’s fight with the county over a cold-weather emergency shelter that the county planned to run with the Salvation Army.
The city tried to block the shelter with a lawsuit on the longstanding assertion that the city became a homeless repository for wealthier cities. Federal Judge David O. Carter initially agreed, but reversed his stance at a later hearing.
By that time, however, the county contract with Salvation Army fell through, leaving things hanging for an unsheltered population caught outside in the winter weather.
Connor said the county should appreciate how many people Micah’s Way picked up outside the jails when they were released, or how many were able to obtain Section 8 housing vouchers thanks to identification services the resource center provides.
“And when they happen to be there, they can ask for a cup of coffee and a muffin,” Connor said. “That’s what the city has seized upon — that that’s a horrendous crime and we’re going to come after you unless you stop doing that.”