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By Eric Heinz
There were several blankets, a sweatshirt and an inexplicable car battery within an open-space area off Avenida Pico, just west of Calle del Cerro, propped against some grassy foliage on Tuesday, July 24.
Homeless “encampments,” or areas where homeless and transient people take up residency and refuge, have dotted San Clemente’s open space areas for the last few years and their numbers could be increasing, according to local law enforcement officials.
There are also contingencies in North Beach and other noticeable places that have become more permanent or growing. As the city grapples with the results of a federal lawsuit against the County of Orange and staying in compliance with laws while trying to protect themselves, frustration with the homeless and transient populations has reached a boiling point.
San Clemente resident Kelly Chapman started the San Clemente Citizens Group on Facebook group about a month ago.
Fire hazards are the No. 1 safety issue concerning Chapman and his cohorts, he said.
“I’d say a close second to fire hazards is someone coming in contact with them,” Chapman said.
Chapman acknowledged that there are varying degrees and circumstances that cause someone to become homeless—one is by choice. He said in order to help the homeless and transients, services provided need to handle their issues on an individual basis, whether that be from drug abuse, mental and behavioral health problems, economic hardship or others.
“I think there’s a difference between a clever guy who’s working the system and somebody who obviously has issues and can’t get along in society,” Chapman said.
Chapman has weighed the prospect of holding a protest in North Beach this weekend in order to gain city officials’ attention to the growing issue, but he is adamant that he and his group do not want to target homeless people or demean them. He said he doesn’t want anyone to ever miss a meal, statements he also made at a Beaches, Parks and Recreation Commission meeting a few weeks ago, but he sees it as an issue that needs to be addressed.
“The thing that the public should know is that every city in California is experiencing the same thing, some worse than us,” said Lt. Mike Peters, the chief of San Clemente Police Services, “but everybody is experiencing the same thing. So, it’s not like San Clemente is a target.”
Although the homeless populations have caused fear in many people due to interactions or conducting what’s normally deemed as unsightly behavior, officials are wary of telling them to just move along.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued cities before, such as the case of Jones v. City of Los Angeles in which they successfully stopped police officers in the city from ticketing homeless people for sleeping or sitting on public facilities. Other factions have fought against the removal or displacement of homeless people in recent months.
As a federal lawsuit by Orange County Catholic Worker and the County of Orange continues,
San Clemente enacted ordinances banning panhandling on public property and giving more leverage to private property owners to have trespassers removed by authorities, a law that was intended to deal with the homeless.
The city was also backed into a corner when it was sued and subsequently ordered to allocate land under SB 2 that would be zoned for a homeless shelter, and it was threatened to do so under an injunction forbidding any permitting or construction in certain areas of the city until it complied.
What They’re Seeing
John Kopp is a self-described concerned resident of San Clemente who has been videoing encampments that have popped up around the city. Kopp said he initially started filming the sliding parking lot of St. Andrews by-the-Sea, but when he saw the encampments from his bird’s-eye view, he started looking for others.
“There’s just a bunch of litter, and also some of the stuff that is found is concerning,” Kopp said, adding he’s seen more homeless encampments reappear shortly after they’ve been exiled from the private property. There have been propane tanks and other flammable material found in these areas. “I just got an email from the Sheriff’s Department saying they visited the last few sites, but the problem is there is more occupancy than that. They’re just not catching them.”
Video from John Kopp surveying homeless encampment
This can cause problems for property management companies or homeowners associations who want to protect their areas from any kind of danger.
“All it needs is a spark and we’ve got a large fire,” Kopp spoke of referring to the dead or dry shrubbery swaths around the city.
Kopp stated there are about 30 or 40 small encampments or locations where homeless and transient people have been spotted, but he says there are likely more. He’s not allowed to fly the drone south into the state parks areas, but he said he has seen some evidence even from across the city’s jurisdiction.
Lt. Mike Peters said although his department has had to deal with the encampments, he’s not sure how many there are.
“I don’t know if there’s a quantifiable way to (count them),” Peters said. “Pico Canyon by itself could have numerous encampments. They come and go. We’ll get waves of transients that come and go. We have a mini-group in the city and it hasn’t really decreased. It’s increased slowly, but we’ll get larger groups that get off a train or a bus.”
Peters said some of the homeless and transient people he’s seen throughout the city sometimes have train tickets or bus passes given to them by people in other cities. He said he couldn’t pinpoint where they get them, but they are receiving them from somewhere.
Joel Zlotnik, the public information officer for Orange County Transportation Authority, said at no time does the authority allow someone to ride for free or at least without a ticket/pass.
Some are likely from the Santa Ana riverbed that was cleared of hundreds of people who are homeless. The county gave them vouchers in March to hotel and motel locations throughout Orange County to suffice shelter requirements under the lawsuit, but those vouchers expired after 30 or 60 days. Although county officials said they’ve kept a majority of them on their registry, some just didn’t report back. Additionally, the Santa Ana armory recently closed, displacing dozens of homeless people.
They come from other areas as well; many of them are locals to South Orange County, but Peters said a recent case had a man extradited back to New Jersey for armed robbery and other crimes.
Letter of the Law
Although the laws apply to all citizens, the homeless population sometimes goes through a revolving door at the prosecutorial level. Sometimes it’s almost not worth taking them to Santa Ana, with officers knowing they’ll end up back in San Clemente.
“If you and I stood in that parking lot and drank vodka or smoked whatever, we would be arrested,” Chapman said, adding that it’s oxymoronic that the same people who are known repeat offenders, who are either homeless or transient, are left alone because authorities know they’ll either be back on the streets or sent through Homeless Court in Santa Ana. “At the very least, county jail probably gives you a chance to look at yourself and change your situation, but they’re not even getting that if they won’t take them up there.”
Peters said until the laws are changed at the state level, his deputies have to work within those confines. Within the last five years, California has passed bills that made narcotic possession and other low-level crimes offenses that are a ticket at most when they once were misdemeanors or felonies.
“We have this delicate balance…that comes in dealing with (homelessness) appropriately and making sure their Constitutional rights are observed while maintaining the safety of the public, and we’re doing everything in our legal capabilities to get this done,” Peters said.