San Clemente City Council members are slated to consider hiring a private security firm to push homeless people off city beaches, yet aren’t offering any sheltering or housing options.
“They’re not victims, they’re victims of their own doing,” Councilman Gene James said at the council’s Tuesday meeting. “These people have to live under our standards, under our morals. We can’t allow a whole group of people to defecate on our sidewalks.”
“The people living on our beaches are vagrants, they’re criminals.”
City Council members scheduled a special meeting for March 27 dedicated solely to the question: should the city hire security guards to push homeless people off the beach despite warnings of a potential lawsuit?
Click here to watch Monday’s 7 p.m. meeting.
James suggested the council review a contract with Gatekeepers Security Services, which has been working security in the cities of Hemet and nearby Oceanside.
Gatekeepers Security has been working in Oceanside over the past five months, patrolling the city’s downtown and beachfront properties in a year-long program aimed at combating rising crime that focused on homeless people according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Those guards cost the city $1.3 million a year for 24/7 patrols along the coast.
“What they’ve done in Oceanside is good. They’re professional,” said Councilman Victor Cabral at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think the time is now for action and less talk.”
Over the years, similar moves have landed other cities – and the county – in federal court.
The County of Orange, along with the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa landed in a high-profile federal lawsuit in 2018 when county officials began clearing the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment but offered the people nowhere to go.
[Read: Lawsuit Seeks End to Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Evictions; County Says It Won’t Stop]
The federal lawsuit eventually brought just about every city in North and Central county into the fold, with U.S. District Judge David Carter instructing counties to abide by the cornerstone Martin v. Boise decision.
That 9th Circuit Court of Appeal decision stipulates cities can only enforce anti-camping laws if they offer enough shelter beds. Carter eventually allowed cities to resume anti-camping enforcement after each municipality had a certain number of beds based on the total number of homeless people in the area.
[Read: San Clemente Begins Anti-camping Enforcement at North Beach, Spurring Public Standoff]
San Clemente was also roped into that lawsuit.
[Read: Five South Orange County Cities Sued for Lack of Homeless Shelters]
Meanwhile, questions on how to handle the homeless encampments along San Clemente’s North Beach have been steadily growing as residents bring up their fears of visiting the beach and frustrations with volunteers offering them food and supplies.
[Read: San Clemente Leaders Move to Push Homeless Off Local Beaches]
Some residents who live near North Beach said local churches are to blame at the council meeting, and that volunteers’ decision to feed homeless residents each morning draws them in.
“It feels unsafe. They look at you, the way they’re cursing, shouting, drinking, using drugs, smoking, leaving garbage all over the place, it doesn’t feel like a safe place,” said one resident at the council meeting. “It’s going to attract these people, they’re not going to leave … because they’re getting hot breakfast every morning.”
Other residents say their fears are overhyped.
Kathy Esfahani, a retired lawyer and chair of the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition, said she lives right next to North Beach and walks the beach trail without an issue every evening to watch the sunset.
“The beach trail is filled with people! We walk at sunset most days, there are young people, there are young families with their children,” Esfahani said in an interview with Voice of OC. “That is not an atmosphere of fear.”
According to the OC Sheriff department’s crime mapping tool, the area around North Beach has been a hot spot for reports of crime over the last month, with multiple reports of vandalism, DUI and theft, but it’s unclear how many of those are from the homeless population.
In an interview with Voice of OC, James said he selected the contractor because of their work in Oceanside and said the city should pursue a similar 24/7 patrol partnership.
“If you’re not there dealing with the situation 24 hours a day, the issue is going to come back,” James said. “I see the scope of work as making contact with the homeless, ensuring that we have a safe and secure environment on our beach trail and our beaches, ensuring that things such as public urination, public defecation, those things are being enforced.”
James also said he wanted the guards to connect the homeless with resources for assistance, but added that he didn’t know of any in the city when asked by Voice of OC reporters.
“As a city, we simply don’t have the resources to provide social service programming. This is something we rely on our county partners for, and our county has not stepped up to the plate,” James said.
Esfahani said she was worried about the private security, raising concerns that they’d be used to circumvent laws designed to protect the homeless.
“It’s sort of like hiring goons to do the dirty work. They cannot get away with it,” Esfahani said. “I’m afraid of what this private security force is going to be asked to do and what they’ll be allowed to do.”
“I think San Clemente residents who care about good government and treating other human beings with compassion should pay attention and not let our town be known for cruelty toward homeless people.”
Councilman Mark Enmeier brought up the possibility of exploring other options at the Mar. 21 meeting, including a discussion with county leaders about the establishment of a shelter in south OC, but the council voted to push any discussion of other solutions to the future.
“It’s not the city’s role to solve homelessness, it’s the city’s role to protect the citizens,” James said at the meeting. “We can talk about how to coordinate with our county and state partners, but primarily, our role is public safety and quality of life.”
James also claimed that 25% of the residents on the beach were sex offenders at the meeting.
“When Fontana emptied out a homeless encampment, 25% of those they emptied out were sexual predators. So we can assume, 25% of the people on our beaches are sexual predators of some sort,” James said.
James later claimed he didn’t say that after public commenters called him out on it.
“I did not say anything about our vagrants,” James said.
The council is hosting the special meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. at city hall.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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