By Eric Heinz and Shawn Raymundo
Orange County Catholic Worker, along with the Emergency Shelter Coalition and Housing is a Human Right Orange County, filed a suit on Feb. 27 against the cities of San Clemente, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, Irvine and Aliso Viejo, because they said the cities have not done enough to provide for a shelter.
A report from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department last week stated the county’s homeless mortality rate had spiked from about 120 in 2014 to more than 210 last year.
San Clemente recently updated its housing element to allow for more SB 2-compliant land (SB 2 was the bill that mandated cities at least zone areas to allow for adequate homeless shelters).
In 2017, an Orange County Superior Court judge dealt San Clemente an injunction, which lasted nearly a year, on building permits and other functions as it was deemed the city had not complied with laws that mandate cities establish space for a shelter. Basically, the entire El Camino Real corridor was barred from development along with areas in North Beach and the medical/hospital-zoned areas adjacent to Capistrano Beach.
After tense negotiations and backlash from residents who wanted nothing to do with the shelter, the city established areas in the San Clemente Business Park that were accepted by the court and the injunction was lifted.
San Clemente City Attorney Scott Smith said he wasn’t sure if this lawsuit, should the judge rule in favor of the plaintiffs, would affect the city’s recently enacted trespassing laws, but he said the challenge was mainly related to arrests on public property. The city has trespassing laws for public property as well, but Smith said there haven’t been any arrests or removals of homeless people since the Ninth Circuit ruling that stopped cities from removing homeless people who camp without a secondary location for them.
“What jumps out is how far beyond the law they seek to extend the law,” Smith said. “This demand is just miles beyond the Ninth Circuit. . . . This is an attempt to bring in San Clemente’s case, a second challenge, to the housing element that was recently upheld weeks ago. The Emergency Shelter Coalition brought a series of challenges, and the last one failed.”
“We’re just digesting it, and we’ll take it up with the city council,” Smith said a day after the suit was filed.
According to federal court documents, a hearing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on April 2 at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Santa Ana.
City officials from San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday defended the city’s efforts to help homeless individuals find resources to get off the streets.
During a public comment portion of San Juan’s city council meeting that night, local resident Jenny Friess said she was relieved to hear about the latest lawsuit and that federal judge David O. Carter “is now forcing the cities down here to face the problem.”
“No more turning a blind eye. No more saying that our hands are tied. Nope, it’s simply time to buckle down and come up with a solution,” she said. “I wish that cities did not have to be forced to do this, but with how complicated the issue is and how reluctant some people can be to deal with it, well, I do see why we were forced to face this.
Addressing Friess’ comments, City Manager Ben Siegel highlighted the work that’s been done. Siegel noted that the city currently contracts a full-time homeless liaison officer from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to help connect homeless individuals to services.
“We also have good relationships with our local non-profit service providers, Mercy House (and) FAM – Family Assistance Ministries,” he said.
Recently, the city and several other South County cities, Siegel added, were successful in securing grant funds under joint application through the Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP). He explained that the cities have used the funds to contract Mercy House to provide outreach services this spring.
“We have an ongoing dialogue with our neighboring cities,” Siegel said. “Obviously now the conversation will be focused more on litigation, but we will certainly continue to offer the services that are available to our homeless individuals going forward.”
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Brian Maryott called the lawsuit “frustrating,” because the city and local law enforcement have been working closely with the county while being “very mindful of the threat of legal action.”
“We’ve worked in good faith to begin to figure out some answers,” he said, noting that the increasing population of homeless individuals in the county have made it a difficult issue to resolve. “That in and of itself is very, very difficult to react to and deal with,” Maryott said. “So it’s frustrating to get hit with a sledgehammer while we’re working on things in a fairly ambitious way to benefit the homeless.”
“Because these issues implicate all 34 cities in Orange County, the city manager, the mayor, and the police chief of each city in Orange County is invited to attend the hearing, and is respectfully requested to provide an update about any emergency and transitional shelter sites within each city and Health Care Service Planning Area,” Carter stated in a report on March 5.