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Photo Above—Tents line the fence along the city of San Clemente’s now-shuttered homeless encampment on Avenida Pico. Photo: File/Cari Hachmann
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comment from the city manager of San Juan Capistrano.
By Shawn Raymundo
Councilmembers earlier this month voted to reject a one-month contract extension with City Net, leaving San Clemente without a homeless services contractor on the ground over the coming weeks—or at least until the city hires its full-time community outreach coordinator.
In a 3-2 decision, with only Mayor Kathy Ward and Councilmember Chris Duncan voting yes on the extension, City Net’s contract with the city officially expired, concluding the 14-month relationship that resulted in more than 50 homeless individuals exiting the streets.
For a majority of the councilmembers though, City Net’s efforts in San Clemente weren’t enough to earn their confidence, including Mayor Pro Tem Gene James, who has staunchly opposed any talks of constructing a local emergency shelter.
“I haven’t seen any impact on what (City Net has) done on the street, and I’m particularly concerned with their support and advocating for permanent supportive housing in San Clemente,” James said following the vote at the council’s March 2 meeting.
James has expressed support for working with city officials in Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano to develop a regional shelter. At his request that same night, the council unanimously voted in favor of initiating such talks with the neighboring towns.
“I’m all for working with other cities, our neighbors, in working on an emergency shelter somewhere, but I simply have not seen any impact that City Net has done,” he said. “All you have to do is walk down (Avenida) Del Mar, on any day of the week, and see their effectiveness.”
According to City Net’s final dashboard report to the city for the month of February, the nonprofit conducted a total of 2,788 outreach contacts with homeless individuals in San Clemente since first being contracted in December 2019.
City Net has noted, that the figure accounts for first-time interactions, as well as individuals who have been contacted on more than one occasion. Those interactions, conducted during street visits ranging from two to three days a week, led to a total of 54 individuals making it into some form of shelter.
In recent months, the nonprofit had upped the amount of days its workers would spend out in the field from two days a week to three. City Net Vice President Matt Bates had previously explained to San Clemente Times that the decision was based on the number of homeless already residing in town.
“It’s not that we saw more people, it’s just that we saw—we saw more interactions than we could,” he said. “By going down twice a week we weren’t running out of people to talk to. There were more people who we could engage with if we went down a third day. It’s just because of the volume of people already there.”
Bates added there was also the amount of time it takes in building relationships to consider. Addressing one misconception regarding engagement with those living on the street, he said that getting someone into housing or a shelter isn’t as cut and dry as simply asking “Do you want to go to a homeless shelter? Yes or no?”
“The reality is, when you’re dealing with people who are in trauma, whatever circumstance that is—you could be talking about domestic violence, you could be talking about youth within the school system, in social services—everything depends on trust between one and the other,” he said. “So, you have to build trust, you have to build awareness.”
Outreach Coordinator Wanted
Councilmember Duncan, following the March 2 vote, expressed confusion over the decision to not extend the contract, which was intended to avoid any disruption to homeless outreach services within San Clemente while the city worked to hire its in-house coordinator.
“I got to say I’m a little confused. This is just for a month until we get our homeless coordinator online,” he said. “We’ve had City Net, for what, a good while now. Whether you like what they’ve done or not, I think providing that continuity until we get our own coordinator on the ground is important, and it is just a month.”
Back in December, the council voted to direct more than $103,000 in federal COVID-relief funding to create the position of the homeless outreach worker, tasked with coordinating services in San Clemente full-time.
According to Community Development Director Cecilia Gallardo-Daly, those funds, which come from Community Development Block Grants under the CARES Act, will pay for the position for one year.
Currently, the city is in the process of recruiting for the role. Heather Lowe, the city’s head of human resources, told the city council in mid-February that the first round of applicant interviews was expected to get underway by this week, at the earliest.
“The candidate who scored the highest in that process would then move forward in the process to an internal board,” Lowe said, noting that the panel would likely comprise department heads who would be expected to work closely with the individual, or know what the role entails.
Gallardo-Daly had previously told councilmembers in December that the city looked at homeless outreach workers in other beach towns, such as Costa Mesa, to get an idea of the “skill set necessary and their ability to connect individuals with resources.”
Expounding on the matter with SC Times in late January, Gallardo-Daly explained that the ideal candidate is someone with experience in interviewing and counseling, and is knowledgeable of community resources and social service programs for the homeless.
The individual, she added, will also work alongside San Clemente’s code compliance team and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s homeless outreach unit, and should also be knowledgeable about the county’s Continuum of Care program— a regional or planning body that coordinates housing, services and funding for homeless families and individuals.
“The position would serve as the City’s liaison to other service providers and mobile street outreach organizations and coordinate services and provide linkages to available resources for individuals and families experiencing homelessness due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gallardo-Daly further noted in an email.
As of this posting, Gallardo-Daly did not return a request for an update on the recruitment process.
Boots on the Ground
For the time being, until the role is filled, the county’s 211 number and program are available to address homeless-related concerns and issues, city officials have said.
“There’s just going to be a gap in service of case-working until that person gets hired and onboard,” Tyler Boden, a member of the city’s Joint Homeless Subcommittee, said Friday, March 12. “It doesn’t mean the average citizen can’t call 211 to find out what’s available to connect someone to interact with services; it just means there’s no one out in the field.”
Boden noted that OCSD’s homeless outreach deputies are still on the ground connecting homeless individuals with county-contracted advocacy groups, which includes nonprofits such as City Net.
“The sheriff’s deputies, if they have a need and they’re interacting with somebody, they might reach out to City Net as a county service, and City Net, through that contract with the county, would be able to operate,” he explained, adding, “They just won’t have their boots on the ground actively looking for people and connecting with services.”
Gary Walsh, chairperson for the Homeless Subcommittee—which comprises members from the city’s Human Affairs Committee and Public Safety Committee—previously told SC Times in early February that the subcommittee was working to put together a road map for the incoming city worker, containing contacts and resources so he or she can hit the ground running.
“A reference book that tells them ‘here’s the groups that work in San Clemente, here’s the religious organizations, here’s who the people are, here’s what they do, here’s how many homeless we have in the city,’” Walsh had explained. “When that homeless liaison officer comes in, we’re going to have everything ready for them.”
Expounding on that reference book, Boden said it’ll contain much of the information that the city already has published on its webpage for homeless resources. Additionally, it will contain a more comprehensive contact list of key players and stakeholders to help the coordinator.
The committee will “compile a more internal contact list for this staff person when they come on, to make it easier and seamless to get them acquainted with the necessary contacts,” he said.
Such contacts, he added, are likely to include Family Assistance Ministries, homeless shelters, and potentially faith-based organizations that have their own homeless outreach operations.
Asked what other resources the city should provide the new employee in order to be successful in the role, Boden said the committee is looking to assemble a stakeholders group comprising those very contacts, who would meet regularly.
“So, incorporating OCSD, FAM, and this staff person and other entities who are pertinent on being involved,” he said. “We want to put together this meeting with some frequency for them to discuss their experiences out in the field and support each other, any way they can.”
Uniting the Tri-Cities
Boden said the subcommittee’s focus is to currently remain on the city’s homeless outreach services. But at some point, down the road, he noted, they may look to become more involved in the discussions on developing a regional shelter.
“We may come back around to ask the council to involve ourselves in that discussion. We have time and energy to do that, but as far as our committee is concerned, our focus is on outreach,” Boden said. After the coordinator is set in his or her position, “then we’ll readdress whether we should be involved in the investigation of shelter options.”
During the early-March meeting, the council voted to direct staff to begin conversations with officials from the cities of Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano about potentially forming a partnership and identifying land to set up a regional emergency shelter for the area’s homeless.
“I think the time is now … to direct staff to start working with the cities of San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point on seeing what the two cities’ appetite would be in joining us, in some sort of joint cooperation agreement, or JPA,” James had said. “But I think the time has come for us to start studying that.”
James, who had outlined his proposal while campaigning for reelection last year, said he believes the three cities can look at some of the county-owned property along Ortega Highway that can be “quickly converted to a shelter with transportation to and from.”
Kelley Reenders, assistant city manager for the city of Dana Point, said Friday that city staff hasn’t been contacted yet by anyone from the city of San Clemente regarding the matter.
“But we’re always open to collaborating with our neighbors,” she emphasized.
San Juan Capistrano City Manager Ben Seigel echoed that response, telling SC Times via email that city staff hasn’t been in contact with officials from San Clemente regarding a potential regional shelter.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.