San Clemente city leaders pushed off a decision on how to respond to what residents are calling a homeless crisis at North Beach, opting not to bring in private security to push homeless people off the beach for the time being.
The discussion came after Councilmember Gene James called for the special meeting at last Tuesday’s regularly scheduled council meeting, suggesting the city hire Gatekeepers Security Services to police the city beaches and help ensure homeless residents didn’t camp out there.
[Read: San Clemente Considers Private Security to Push Homeless People Off the Beach]
“This is about the safety and security of our families,” James said at the council’s Monday night meeting to applause from the audience. “We don’t want San Clemente to become the hell hole Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland … and the list goes on.”
However, the city council ultimately voted to delay any private security in a narrow 3-2 vote and give their city staff time to review the issue and provide multiple options, including beefing up sheriffs and code enforcement staff in those areas or requesting bids for a security company.
“You can be with public safety and do it right,” said Councilman Steve Knoblock, who floated the motion to let staff study the issue more. “We need to empower our management to do their job.”
James and Councilman Victor Cabral voted against that idea, arguing instead to bring in private security immediately.
The discussion is expected to return at the council’s April 18 meeting.
Many residents said homeless encampments along San Clemente’s North Beach have been steadily growing, preventing them from visiting the beach or walking near the area without running into the city’s homeless population, with frequent theft and safety issues.
[Read: San Clemente Leaders Move to Push Homeless Off Local Beaches]
“One night I walked out and there was a guy with a hammer in my parking garage. That’s something to be concerned about, wouldn’t you agree?” said North Beach resident Bill Hopkins. “I’ve had my car broken into, I’ve had my windshield smashed twice…there’s no way in the world I’d ever go to that beach at night.”
Other residents and advocacy groups like the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition argued against the move, calling it unethical and questioning why Gatekeepers were picked without any review of other security firms.
“We believe this wrongheaded, cruel proposal will do nothing to ‘solve’ our city’s homelessness crisis,” leaders of the coalition wrote in a letter to the council. “Instead, it will simply waste taxpayer funds while inflicting pain on our most vulnerable residents.”
Linda Sadeghi, owner of The Casino San Clemente in North Beach, wrote a letter to Voice of OC describing the constant barrage of homeless people trespassing onto her property, interrupting wedding parties, breaking windows and leaving drug paraphernalia behind.
“We are not looking to remove these folk heartlessly — we are not going to single handedly solve homeless issues here,” Sadeghi wrote. “We are looking for local authorities to realize our plight and enforce current laws which forbid trespassing, vandalism and criminal activity such as the drug dealing in plain sight.”
Orange County Sheriff Captain James Christian said he’s refocused deputies on North Beach in the last two weeks following complaints from the community and only had 11 overnight contacts with homeless people during that time.
“It’s been very limited contact on the beach at night,” Christian said. “I’m trying to get around-the-week coverage.”
Christian added that if they move to provide more services at North Beach, it means other places in the city would receive fewer patrols.
Gatekeepers currently provides services to monitor the homeless populations in Riverside County and Oceanside, which has been a success according to the company’s owner Grant Norman, who spoke at the council meeting.
The proposed agreement would post at least four security guards patrolling the beaches 24/7 with marked vehicles and body cams and would cost $131,400 per month, over $1.5 million a year if the city goes past a 60-day trial period.
Currently, there’s no county-run shelter in South Orange County, and some homeless activists are concerned that pushing people off the beach won’t fix the problem.
Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center who advocates for homeless people, said hiring a security company would be a direct violation of the constitution and goes against the OC Sheriff’s Department’s own policies.
“If they were to hire a private company to act on their behalf and do things that people like me would point out violate the constitutional rights of their residents and other law enforcement agencies have already decided violate the rights of their residents, they would be opening themselves up to the liability that comes with choosing to violate the rights of your constituents,” Weitzman said in a phone interview Monday afternoon.
Similar situations have landed Orange County and the City of San Clemente in federal court before.
The County of Orange — along with cities like Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa — landed in a 2018 federal lawsuit when county officials started clearing homeless encampments from the Santa Ana riverbed.
[Read: Lawsuit Seeks End to Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Evictions; County Says It Won’t Stop]
Those cities lost that lawsuit and were told by US District Judge David Carter that unless they set up shelter beds to accommodate the homeless, they weren’t allowed to push them out of where they were living.
Also in 2018, San Clemente and other South OC cities grappled with a federal lawsuit over the region’s homeless policies.
[Read: Homeless Settlement Limits South County Anti-Camping Enforcement]
Weitzman said San Clemente’s proposed hiring of the security company could get the city in hot water again.
“Cities in the county that are going to choose to invest in criminalization of poverty instead of solutions and to do it in a way that blatantly violates the constitution of our country and our state — we are certainly prepared to step in and hold them accountable and go through the court system to stop those violations.”
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.
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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Linda Sadeghi as a member of the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition. We regret the error.
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