Santa Ana’s effort to crack down on street-level homeless clinics and charitable groups through the zoning code has brought officials face-to-face with another discrimination lawsuit.
In a March 20 legal complaint, a low-income health clinic that hoped to provide dental, pharmacy and vision services on North Main Street alleges that recent council-adopted zoning laws prevented the group from closing escrow on a three-story, 44,000-square-foot commercial office building near the Main Place Mall.
This was despite the federally-qualified health nonprofit, known as Share Our Selves, saying it made changes to its clinic proposal in early correspondence with the city, which requested for instance that the clinic not include a food pantry in its offices.
The lawsuit alleges it’s all part of “an orchestrated campaign to use the City’s land use regulations to thwart and obstruct the operations of charitable organizations, like Micah’s Way and the Salvation Army, who try to provide much-needed services to poor and homeless persons residing in Santa Ana.”
“Blatant discrimination has blinded the city to all the benefits,” said an attorney representing the SOS clinic, Ed Connor, who has a long history of fighting such cases against the city.
The attorney also represents Micah’s Way, a Christian basic needs and direct assistance charity that’s challenging the city’s denial of their occupancy permit on 4th Street on the basis of federal religious protections.
Connor also represented the OC Catholic Worker’s Isaiah House in the early aughts, when Catholic Workers sued the city over a code section banning missions near industrial zones
City of Santa Ana spokesperson Paul Eakins declined to comment for this story, saying the city could not speak on pending litigation.
Phone and email messages seeking comment from Mayor Valerie Amezcua went unreturned on Monday.
Before Amezcua, homeless clinic and legal disputes unfolded under her predecessor and current county supervisor, Vicente Sarmiento, who in an emailed statement on Monday said, “I have not reviewed the lawsuit filed by Share Our Selves.”
“However, what the plaintiffs may have failed to consider is that Santa Ana has done more to provide affordable housing for working families, and social services to our unhoused neighbors than most cities,” Sarmiento added. “Thanks to its leadership, many other cities are now stepping up to do their fair share.”
As the seat of county government and center for regional social services and the jails, Santa Ana officials have for years pushed back on their city becoming wealthier areas’ repository for the unhoused – arguing they’ve borne the brunt of a regional crisis.
It drove the city’s opposition to hosting a county-run cold weather shelter last year, creating a legal dispute which killed a County of Orange contract with Salvation Army and delayed an emergency rain refuge for the homeless by months, until another location was identified in Fullerton.
Connor said the Main Street clinic wouldn’t have only served the unhoused.
“It would have served Santa Ana residents — poor Latinos who are at or around the federal poverty level,” he said.
Founded in 1970, according to the group’s lawsuit, Share Our Selves is a non-profit community health center that serves the uninsured at different locations across Orange County, with centers in Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Newport Beach and Mission Viejo.
The clinic has been designated as a Federally Qualified Health Center (“FQHC”)
since 2012, and also receives public funds for providing health care to homeless people, according to the lawsuit.
A development partner called Turner Healthcare Facilities Acquisition LLC entered a contract to buy the Main Street property for Share Our Selves in March 22 of last year, according to a written timeline the nonprofit’s CEO, Christy Ward, provided in materials sent out to reporters.
Under that area’s municipal zoning, the lawsuit argues the clinic was eligible for “by-right” approval but that city officials made revisions – right as Share Our Selves prepared to submit its project – to require discretionary permits for non profit medical offices.
At a meeting on Dec. 20, city council members unanimously approved what’s called an “urgency ordinance,” which in part required discretionary permits for nonprofit medical offices, in an effort to “address and reduce” what city staff called “the potential impact to the built environment stemming from these land uses.”
About a month later, at a meeting on Feb. 7, city council members voted 6-1, with Councilmember Ben Vazquez opposed, to finalize that new permit policy on a permanent basis, after a lobbyist representative for the clinic voiced objections in public comments.
During the brief council discussion, Vazquez pushed for a continuance on the permitting item so Share Our Selves “could move forward with their escrow deal” and called the clinic “a necessary resource we need in Santa Ana.”
Days later, on Feb. 10, the escrow period on the Main Street property expired, with the nonprofit unable to close the sale due to the new rules, according to Ward’s timeline.
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages from the city as a result.
“They spent months working with the city – planning, architects … they had to pay a number of extension fees to the seller to keep the sale alive, and they lost all that money. Close to $500,000 they lost as a result,” said Connor, repeating the figure made in the complaint.
Santa Ana has also become a focal point in a brewing debate over what’s actually driving encampments across the state: Housing affordability, or mental health and substance abuse issues?
At their regular city council meetings, elected officials get monthly public updates about the local homeless population, citations, and shelter availability.
At the council’s last meeting on March 21, such an update put the topic on full display.
Councilmember Phil Bacerra, for instance, raised the issue of “criminal drug activity.”
“We have fentanyl in the streets … The narcotic activity is prevalent,” said Bacerra. “As much as we have a homeless problem and as much as what we’re doing with shelters and permanent supportive housing, we need to address the criminal drug activity that is happening.”
Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, on another hand, said “the entire community of people who are homeless are people who have no homes. Homelessness is a housing issue.”
Meanwhile, the city has endeavored to crack down on substance abuse and mental health clinics serving homeless people, revoking the permit for a voluntary addiction treatment center in town called the Harm Reduction Institute, which distributed naloxone, clean syringes, and counseling.
The city’s also suing the Mental Health Association of Orange County over its clinic on South Main Street, tying the center to crime and calls for service.
Lilli Graham, an advocate for the South Main Street clinic and attorney with Disability Rights California, said a trial for that case is set to start on May 3.