City of San Clemente officials likely to file cease and desist order against operators, stating operation is not in compliance with ordinance
By Eric Heinz
About 40 people gathered Wednesday evening on the 2900 block of Via San Gorgonio in San Clemente to protest what they say will be the latest installment of a sober living home in the neighborhood.
Equipped with signs, some of which said “Unlicensed Facilities Are Not Welcome Here” and “Addicts Deserve Licensed and Professional Care,” the protesters gathered near the entrance to San Gorgonio Park. Children banged on pots and pans and protesters chanted and cheered as people driving by showed solidarity to the cause by honking.
The home, located at 2931 Via San Gorgonio, is leased by Sovereign Health, a company that treats recovery clients either through outpatient services or inpatient group housing. Protesters said there have been operators setting up the home for their recovery clients, which is illegal in San Clemente without a permit if the number of people living there exceeds the six-person maximum. Opponents to the operation said Sovereign Health has put somewhere between eight to 12 beds in the home.
During the protest, no lights were on in the home, no vehicles were in the driveway and no one seemed to be home.
Next-door resident Chris Penna said when they searched the home on Zillow, a real estate pricing aggregate website, the home was stated to be a “residential care facility,” which they felt was misleading. Other neighbors said it had been listed as a senior citizen care home.
“We are terrified,” Penna said. “We just want to do anything to stop this. They’ve done nothing wrong yet…but they do not belong in a neighborhood like this. We don’t have a problem with people getting help, but this is not the proper place for it.”
Penna said neighbors fear the home would cause the safety and quality of neighborhood to deteriorate.
“I have a brother in Capo Beach and they said (sober living homes) have caused a lot of problems,” Penna said. “Nothing good comes out of this. Just the anticipation of this coming has been very frightening.”
He said he’s equipped his home with surveillance and security measures.
Sovereign Health emailed the San Clemente Times last week claiming people have harassed their clients at the location.
“(On Thursday, Aug. 11), there was an incident at one of our residential homes in San Clemente 2931 Via San Gorgonio, San Clemente. Eight neighbors entered the house, unannounced,” the email stated. “The neighbors began prowling the house, taking pictures, videotaping patients and staff, and threatening Sovereign Health to ‘leave the neighborhood, or else things were going to get real bad for Sovereign Health.’ Also reported by a staff member, a neighbor shouted, ‘I know the type of car you drive, and I’ll kick you out of town.’ After the threat, the staff member called the Orange County (Sheriff’s) Department.”
It was not immediately clear whether Sovereign Health had filed a formal complaint with Orange County Sheriffs regarding the reported incident.
On Thursday, after SC Times asked if Sovereign Health had the proper permitting for the San Gorgonio home, they did not directly answer the question but sent this response.
“For the second time this week, several residents from a San Clemente neighborhood abruptly entered a private residence and frightened a team of Sovereign Health staff members who were working there at the time,” officials stated. “Sovereign objects to such unwarranted and disruptive behavior and expects that it will not occur again in the future.”
Brent Panas, the city’s Code Compliance Services supervisor, said because it appears residents moved in last night, the city will likely file a cease and desist order against the operators, if they are out of compliance with the city’s ordinance.
“We checked with Department of Health Case Service and Social Services and none of them have licensed them as a mental health or provider of other services,” Panas said.
The homes don’t need a license to operate, but they do in order to provide certain services for people classified as inpatients.
The recovery and healthcare provider stated it treats patients for mental health issues including trauma, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, cognitive impairment and eating disorders. The patient population includes male and female patients covering a broad range of ages, from adolescents to adults and senior citizens. Representatives said they also service United States military personnel and combat veterans.
The city classifies these types of homes as boarding houses—in order to keep in compliance with federal and state laws that protect such treatment residences. The city also requires these homes get permits and cannot be less than 300 feet from one another.
The protestors said they intend to return to the same location the evening of Friday, Aug. 19, to protest sober living homes. They said because the city is hosting its movie and concert in the park event they will be able to reach more people.
“We do not want them to be operating illegally in our neighborhood,” Ryan Wilkinson “They’re trying the back door and operate. We don’t want somebody coming into the neighborhood and operating in the neighborhood.”
Wilkinson said he lives in the immediate area of the probable sober living home.
Eva O’Keefe, who has been a social media ringleader to protest sober living facilities and any crime associated in the city, said she intends to organize more protests in the future against any facility that is operating illegally within San Clemente.
This isn’t the first time groups in San Clemente have protested sober living homes. Last year, the citizen organization Take Action San Clemente protested sober living homes between Avenida Pico and Calle Frontera.
Anthony LaFrano, a San Clemente resident who has been vocal at recent City Council meetings against sober living homes, homeless shelter locations and illegal encampments, and the short-term rental units in which people rent out their home to guests for an extended period of time.
“This is how we do it, and you’ve got to support the next person who’s hurting,” LaFrano said, adding he does not live in the Shorecliffs neighborhood but wanted to support the movement. “This is judicial overreach in California. The courts have gone too far. For the (U.S.) Ninth Circuit Court to tell us that we have to allow these people in our neighborhood, it’s wrong.”
LaFrano was referring to a court case in which the city of Costa Mesa was barred by the federal court to enforce a regulation against homes operating as sober living providers.
“These people are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Does that mean they get a handicap placard too? Do they get to park in handicap parking because they’re a drug addict or alcoholic?” LaFrano said. “They’re moving these people into our neighborhoods, and I can handle it, but our kids can’t handle it; they’re the innocent victims.”
“You could have a pedophile who’s sitting in a house who is not supposed to be near a park, but because they’re protected under the act they can be in a facility that’s next to a school,” Wilkinson added.
LaFrano, speaking through a bullhorn, roused the protestors by telling them sober living homes were coming into town and “menacing with us.”
“This park is going to be like the drug-trafficking park, if this continues,” LaFrano said “It’s not acceptable.”
One Shorecliffs resident, who asked not to be identified because she said she was victimized in January by someone who broke into her house and then tore into another home where a child was living.
“This man was from North Carolina and living at a sober living home, and he was lost that night, high as a kite on meth, is what the sheriff’s told us,” the woman said. “He broke in through our gate, woke up our kids. I don’t know where the house was but I do know he was lost from his house.”
Since the ordinances were passed by City Council, Panas said there have been a number of sober living homes that stopped operations in San Clemente because they could not comply with the new laws.
An official number has not been determined by the city, but protesters said it is about 35, and Panas said the last one to pack up and leave was documented in April.
Editor’s note: This is a developing story, part of a series the San Clemente Times is doing on the issue of sober living homes and rehabilitation services within the city.