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Santa Ana to consider emergency ordinance aimed at civic center homeless camp

A homeless encampment located around the Santa Ana Civic Center in Orange County.
Jill Replogle/KPCC
A homeless encampment located in the Civic Center in Orange County. Santa Ana is considering adopting an emergency ordinance that city officials say is intended to stave off a public health crisis in and around the encampment.

The city of Santa Ana may tighten restrictions aimed at homeless people living in the civic center in an effort to clean up the large encampment there and address public health and safety concerns.  

Santa Ana’s city council will consider an emergency ordinance Tuesday that would prohibit people in the civic center from possessing a long list of items including building materials, generators, furniture and bicycle parts.

Animals other than service dogs would also be outlawed. 

The rules would also prohibit people and organizations from handing out food or providing services without proper permits and approval from the city manager. 

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said the proposal is aimed at addressing public health concerns in and around the Plaza of the Flags, where an estimated 175 homeless people sleep in tents and makeshift structures. 

She said discarded food and trash attract rats and cockroaches to the plaza, and used hypodermic needles are routinely found strewn about the concrete.

“We have to get out there and clean this up,” Carvalho said. 

She said the city had received an increasing number of complaints from the public about the encampment, which is adjacent to the Orange County Superior Court building and the county’s public law library. Santa Ana City Hall is also adjacent. Carvalho said jurors had requested relocation of their jury service because they didn’t feel safe coming to the downtown courthouse.

The city also received a letter from the president of the OC law library's board of trustees complaining of abandoned syringes in the library’s restrooms and public urination and defecation around the building’s exterior. 

“The presence of so many homeless people at the Library’s doorstep is more than a mere annoyance; it is a danger to Library staff and patrons,” library President Craig Griffin wrote. He noted the Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego that has killed 17 people over the past year, most of them homeless. 

"The risk of disease from feces on the Library carpets and literally scores of hypodermic of needles discarded in various areas of the Library within the past year is not imaginary," Griffin wrote.

Orange County is enveloped in an increasingly heated public debate over how to address its growing homeless population. Some 4,800 people are without permanent shelter in Orange County, according to the January Point-in-Time homeless count. That's an eight percent increase since 2015. 

More than half of the county’s homeless sleep outside, not in shelters. And county data show a similar lack of emergency shelter beds to meet the needs of the population.  

The Elder Law and Disability Rights Center recently threatened to sue Santa Ana for allegedly seizing homeless people’s property in the civic center without proper notice and a reasonable process for retrieving it. Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer at the organization, said she was concerned about the city’s new proposed rules.

“We do see some serious constitutional and statutory violations,” Weitzman said of the proposed emergency ordinance. 

Morgan Denges, who helps organize food delivery and outreach to homeless people for Orange County Catholic Worker, said the proposed restrictions on serving food at the civic center were unconstitutional. 

“That is a pretty clear violation of our First Amendment rights,” he said. "This is our religion to serve the poor as God has commanded us to.”

City Attorney Carvalho said the food regulations are intended to ensure proper food sanitation and to keep potential safety hazards like barbecues out of the civic center. She noted that meals are served daily across the street at the Courtyard homeless shelter and drop-in center. 

“We believe that’s the place that people should get food,” she said. 

Carvalho stressed that the city’s aim was not to "criminalize homelessness” and that people would still be allowed to sleep in tents at the civic center. She said the city recently placed two portable bathrooms and two wash stations near the plaza to improve sanitation. 

The proposed emergency regulations must be approved by two-thirds of Santa Ana's seven-member city council. The council meets Tuesday at 5 p.m.