By Cari Hachmann
Some changes are being made at the homeless campsite on Avenida Pico in San Clemente.
Homeless campers had been given notice that the city would be closing the campsite for routine maintenance and cleaning Friday, Aug. 30. Residents were asked to remove all of their property from the site, beginning at 7 a.m.
“That was a deception,” said a homeless man named Jess, who asked to only go by his middle name so he could speak candidly on the matter.
Jess and many other homeless campers told the San Clemente Times that in the morning each camper was given one or two plastic bins to store their personal tents in.
“They never said what they were going to do afterward,” Jess added.
Once campers packed up their stuff and took it off the site, many lined the sidewalk outside with their belongings. Anything left behind would be declared abandoned, removed and stored by the city.
City officials then began installing new, green tents that now line the inside perimeter of the site.
Campers were told they would need to provide officials with proof they had ties to San Clemente in order for them to return to the campsite.
“You have to have an address that says you live in San Clemente,” said Rodger Etzwiler, a homeless man who has been staying at the campsite.
Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department were on the scene, as well as county healthcare officials, to assist during the transition.
Carrie Braun, public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, said OCSD was onsite Friday solely to keep the peace alongside the county assessment teams from the healthcare agency.
Erik Sund, assistant city manager said, “The city chose to buy new tents to create some uniformity with regard to the campsite and maintain or minimize the amount of trash and other things coming in.”
Those at the campsite must stay in the city-provided tents, Sund said. Campers can also only bring in what they can fit inside a 65-gallon trash can.
“If they had a tent, we said ‘put it in a bin, and we will store if for you,’” Sund said.
The city spent a little over $3,000 on the tents.
Sund said the goal is to maintain a safe, public area at the campsite.
The other new requirement at the campsite is those who stay there must be San Clemente residents, Sund confirmed.
Documents people can provide include an identification card with a San Clemente address on it, a utility bill, or a high school diploma.
“We are open to whatever documentation they can provide that shows proof that they lived in San Clemente,” Sund said.
He said the city’s attorney communicated to the plaintiff’s attorney last week as to what the city would be doing today. The plaintiff he is referring to comprises the three homeless advocacy groups and three homeless individuals that have filed a lawsuit against the city over homeless civil rights.
The city maintains it communicated the change of plans to homeless people during the cleanup process.
Sund said he is not concerned about those who will be displaced by the new residency requirement implemented Friday.
“We have outreach services who are providing a number of options and resources,” he said, such as “Homeward Bound or other services to help bridge them to where they can go.”
Sund said the city will enforce the rules the council adopted at the homeless campsite. He said the city has also hired a new security company to provide onsite security services.
Prior to the cleanup, the city estimated there to be about 71 people staying at the campsite on Avenida Pico.
In speaking with several homeless individuals on Friday, they felt the city had tricked them into leaving the campsite while not letting everyone back in.
“If they would have told us, we could have made arrangements,” said one camper. “Now they’re going to have a bunch of displaced people going back into the city.”
City officials were inside the gated campsite checking identification of those who wanted to go back inside.
One woman who said she was a human trafficking victim said she did not have any identification and would be leaving the camp.
Braun provided the following statement from OCSD: “I want to make clear that being homeless is not a license to break the law. Other than protections provided by federal court rulings, the County’s settlement does not prevent law enforcement from taking action against criminal activity. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department will continue to actively patrol the communities we serve to ensure public areas do not become havens for criminal activity and illicit drug use.
Braun continued, “Our proactive efforts have shown results. OCSD has three sergeants and 22 deputies assigned as members of our Homeless Outreach Team. Since August 2018, this team has made more than 3,200 contacts with homeless individuals. These contacts have resulted in placing 128 people in shelter and over 700 others being connected with some type of service. Additionally, during that same period the Team has made approximately 1,000 arrests for non-status related crimes.”