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By Eric Heinz
Although many recently published studies from the County of Orange do not show a significant increase in the homeless population, many San Clemente denizens say they’ve seen an increase. The number of homeless encampments in canyons and various nooks of the city have been reported on citizen outreach groups’ social media, and some encampments have been ordered removed.
The city of San Clemente recently lost a lawsuit filed by a company in San Juan Capistrano, alleging the city was not in compliance with Senate Bill 2, which mandates that cities provide adequate zoning to allow for the possible establishment of an emergency shelter, particularly for use by the homeless population.
At a recent Planning Commission meeting, the city reported there are about 55 to 70 chronically homeless people within the city. At City Council and other committee or commission meetings, public speakers have also insinuated that the homeless are synonymous with “transients,” people who may stay in an area for some time but then move to another city.
The following question and conversations with this year’s City Council candidates explores how they would address homelessness and the concerns citizens have regarding the issues.
The candidates’ answers are listed in the order their names will appear on the November ballot.
Question: What is your assessment of the treatment of the homeless population in San Clemente, and is there anything you would do to address the issue?
“We have a handful of nonprofits here that have really worked hard in helping the homeless,” Swartz said. “We live in a climate where we’re going to attract them. We need to adopt the same thing they did in Sacramento, which was a no-panhandling ordinance, so that we can then take care of that portion of it. And then we do need to allow for there to be a nonprofit group to build a homeless shelter, but the problem is unlike the ball field: just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come.”
Swartz acknowledged the homeless population that may want to stay on the streets and opt to live in the parks and the canyons. He said they can’t be allowed to stay there overnight and the city’s codes do need to be enforced.
“We used to have a task force in this town between the city commissions, committees and the nonprofit groups for the welfare of the citizens of San Clemente and the nonprofits,” Swartz said. “You had the ability to look at the issues and those are the resources we should look to. They don’t drain our resources if we’re working in conjunction with some of the nonprofits that do a great job.”
SC Times asked Swartz about his thoughts on the required zoning process to allow for an emergency shelter.
“The Planning Commission had hearings and spent tons of hours to put together something, and the city should have just adopted it, and they didn’t. Simple as that. That was the No. 1 problem I had when I was the chairman of the Beaches, Parks and Recreation Commission,” Swartz said. “We would go months, we would have hearing after hearing. We would have both sides, and I always felt when you have both sides of the issue and they’re both talking to you and you deliberate and both parties leave mad at you that you’ve made a good decision. The idea is to find what works best for the city and you don’t have to lean one way or the other, but you can find the right solution.”
“That was one of the things that before I got on City Council I wouldn’t have an answer for, but now being involved on Council for four years, we did a lot of things for the homeless population,” Hamm said. “The biggest things we did were public-private partnerships to reach out for food and clothing and people getting back jobs and any support they need to get back in the working class. San Clemente has been on the front line of places to stay, things to do for the homeless. And I think as long as we continue to have strong public-private partnerships, I think we’re going to be ahead of the curve on homeless issues.”
Hamm said he has seen an increase in people being “kicked out” of sober living homes, who then become homeless. He said it’s obvious to know which ones have been most recently kicked out when they have all their luggage with them and an identifying sticker from the facilities.
“Being a firefighter, we see it all the time,” Hamm said. “They say, ‘I have nowhere to go. I just got kicked out of this home. My phone is dead. I have no money to get a plane ticket and go home.’ Is that a homeless population? It’s a transitional population for sure, and those are the kinds of people we see on a daily basis because they’re carrying that luggage. So there’s an anecdotal way to say it’s gone up, but really it’s probably more people just trying to get home.”
Hamm said the practice of “phishing” has gone way up, based on what he’s heard from local deputies. Phishing, in this sense, is people trying to burglarize cars and homes by quickly checking random door handles to see if the car or home is unlocked.
Pamela Joy Glass:
“I think San Clemente Police Services substation are just the best here,” Glass said. “They are reaching out to people, and it’s through love and kindness that people find self-worth and desire to help themselves.”
Glass said the homeless population needs help with getting social security cards and identification, and the homeless need to recognize the advantages of being a citizen of the United States and San Clemente.
“There are solutions, and if they so desire, they can get up, stand up and recognize Uncle Sam,” Glass said. “The Uncle Sam I’m talking about wants us to be honest citizens and to just cultivate qualities in our lives that just uplift us instead of yoking us to underground living. That’s something they have to do, and if they’re not able to do that, then the measures are certainly here to take care of those issues.”
Robert “Bob” Baker:
“We have a terrific agency in San Clemente in Family Assistance Ministries that’s done a lot for homeless folks,” Baker said. “People always talk about the guy who lost his job and the wife lost her job, and now they have no income so they get evicted; they’re usually young families. Nobody ever really talks about the chronic homeless, the folks with mental disorders or those with terrible problems that are visible and … I’m not sure there are good solutions for those kinds of things. But for the groups of people who are homeless, we have FAM, and the city and your tax dollars go to support the, not a great deal (of funds), and they do a lot of fundraising. They do great stuff in the community.”
Baker said FAM interviews its clients before giving them resources and assigning caseworkers, and he said the organization is geared toward getting people off the street.
“I think it’s a terrific approach and a good way to operate, and I’m very encouraged by FAM. They’re now inputting a lot of their data into the county’s system. This is a difficult problem for everyone.”
SC Times asked Baker if there is anything he would do to establish a shelter, beyond the minimum requirements of the SB 2 lawsuit.
“No, because that’s not the function of SB 2 that we’re trying to comply with,” Baker said. “I’m not in favor of the city of San Clemente establishing its own homeless shelter. Absolutely not. … I am in favor of complying with SB 2 and zoning a portion of San Clemente to allow a homeless shelter to go in there by right, and that’s what we thought we did when we passed our SB 2 compliance ordinance. We modeled this after the ordinance in San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point, neither of which got sued. We got sued by a resident of San Juan, which gives rise to the question, ‘Why didn’t you sue your own city?’ We’ll see how the County of Orange homeless shelter works out.”
“Homelessness is an issue all over California,” Bane said. “You can just drive to Los Angeles and you see there’s a huge issue. The first thing is we have to comply with SB 2. I wish we would have done a better job up front. No one wants to talk about litigation, but part of what I’m running on in my campaign is to make smart decisions and strategic decisions up front and not bury our head in the sand. The Planning Commission made a recommendation early on as to what areas should be designated for homeless shelters, and the bottom line is the City Council did not follow those recommendations. We got sued, and we lost.”
Bane reiterated the court’s ruling that stated if the city had followed the recommendation from the Planning Commission, the city would have not lost the lawsuit.
Bane said he serves on the board of Serving People in Need (SPIN) in Costa Mesa, which aims to help homeless people get off the street.
“We sort of have a program; we say we’re partnering with (Family Assistance Ministries), but we need to help these people get their own housing and get back into society, but we’re not doing that. Another thing is the panhandling ordinance. I’m not going to say I’m shocked; there are a lot of cities in Orange County that have them. We’re behind on the times in that regard. We need to adopt a panhandling ordinance. It’s an easy step the city could do. I hope we don’t reinvent the wheel and spend a bunch of money to do that, but that’s an interim measure that can be done and help reduce the number of panhandling rings that are clearly in the city.”
Bane said not everyone who is panhandling is part of some kind of organized scam, but many of them are.
“They’ve gotten very savvy at figuring out how to get the most money. It’s not just endemic to San Clemente. It’s everywhere. I’m not going to say in all cases those folks are part of a racket, but by and large they are, and we’re especially vulnerable to it because we do not have a panhandling ordinance.”
Bane said the city could enforce this by keeping tabs on repeat offenders and taking “corrective enforcement.”