San Clemente is facing some questions over its treatment of homeless residents during the World Surf League Finals last month, when city staff helped residents off the beach and into motels for the night in Dana Point.
After that, homeless residents were left there – with no offerings of a shelter or services, and no way to get back home, according to local activists.
The situation is raising questions about what kind of rules different cities have for how they interact with the homeless, and whether the mixup could lead to a change in policy for the future.
Multiple homeless advocacy groups, including Housing is a Human Right Orange County and the San Clemente Affordable Housing Coalition, criticized the city for its treatment of homeless people in a letter to the city council on Sept. 15.
City officials say it was a delicate balance tending to the needs of homeless people, while also making sure the beach was ready for the surf competition.
In the letter, they claimed city staff offered to help five homeless residents get motels for the night of Friday, Sept. 8, with two in San Clemente and three in Dana Point, while putting all their belongings in city storage to move them out of the way for the World Surf League competition the next day.
But on Saturday morning Sept. 9, the homeless residents found out they only had been given one night at the motel, and they weren’t offered any food or help in returning to the city they lived in.
“These three homeless San Clemente residents, with little money and no transportation, had been dumped in another city with no way home,” activists wrote.
To read the letter, click here.
Mayor Chris Duncan praised the city’s response in a Monday interview, saying they had to consider the needs of the homeless residents and the safety of their visitors, who would’ve had to walk through their encampment to get to the event.
“It both assured they would be safe and out of the hustle and bustle of everyone going to the competition and that there was room for folks to park and get to the shuttles down to the finals from that location,” Duncan said in an interview.
The only way the homeless residents made it back was because a local activist knew one of the homeless residents who was moved to Dana Point and drove them back while helping the residents get their property back.
“It is a stunning fact that only a Good Samaritan’s intervention prevented these five unhoused San Clemente residents from being left on the street – three in another city—with no provisions, separated from their camping supplies and other belongings,” activists wrote.
That lack of an instruction manual isn’t unique to San Clemente – cities like Newport Beach and Huntington Beach have passed similar rules blocking people from camping in city parks.
It’s also difficult to track what the precise rules are for cities to deal with homelessness because many laws are written in such a way they don’t specifically list homeless residents.
Activists are calling on San Clemente to adopt new policies that would guarantee anyone the city provided with a motel would get at least three nights stay, money for food and transportation back home once their motel stay wrapped up.
“We want a commitment that this will not happen again,” activists wrote.
It’s not unheard of for cities to move homeless residents ahead of major sporting events, like when Los Angeles cleared out a homeless encampment near SoFi Stadium just weeks ahead of the 2022 Super Bowl.
“None of this happened here,” Duncan said. “I think that’s a pretty good showing from the city and certainly better than other places have done.”
When asked about their struggles to return home, Duncan said he didn’t know the details of that situation, saying “I can’t speak to whatever happened after their stay concluded.”
In an emailed statement on Oct. 10, City manager Andy Hall said that “communication related to transportation could have been better,” adding that homeless residents asked to be put in the motels and said his team “did the best they could under the circumstances.”
“We are exploring ways and strategies to improve our processes,” Hall said.
When asked if it was common practice for the city to provide motel rooms for homeless residents in the city on request, Hall said there was no such thing as “common or uncommon in these circumstances.”
“Every situation is literally different and that is why I think our team does such a great job. There is no book or instruction manual to follow,” Hall said. “They do their very best given the moment.”
While there’s clear policy on moving homeless people, the city does have a lot of unconnected rules that govern how they interact with homeless residents.
City council members recently hired security guards to patrol the beach at night and ensure people weren’t camping out there.
At their Oct. 3 meeting, San Clemente City Council members also approved a new law that would ban tents with only one opening on the beachfront, with Councilman Rick Loeffler saying that officers would have “discretion” over which tent dwellers received warnings.
“For enforcement, you do have discretion. I mean you can look and see, I have one for my grandkids, just a little igloo … or someone who’s camping on the beach,” Loeffler said. “You can make that distinction.”
Under a 9th Circuit Court of Appeal ruling, cities like San Clemente technically can’t enforce anti-camping laws because they don’t have a shelter to send their homeless residents to, and no one in South Orange County is currently looking to become the host for one.
David Duran, one of the cofounders of Housing is a Human Right OC, said it’s not uncommon to have cities clear out or ask the homeless to move, and that it can end up making it harder to convince them to reach out for services in the future.
“When you do things like move people a city away and abandon them, does that contribute to an unhoused person’s trust?” Duran said. “There is, very simply, no trust.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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