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Homeless Advocates Push for Revision of Anti-camping Law

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Homeless man sleeping on a bench | photo Voice of OC
Homeless man sleeping on a bench | photo Voice of OC,

for Voice of OC

To some, anti-camping ordinances are necessary to maintaining the quality of life in a city; to others they only serve to criminalize homelessness.

The Anaheim City Council will grapple with these arguments in the coming weeks as Councilman Jose Moreno has ordered a review of the city’s 2013 anti-camping law, which could lead to it being rescinded.

Moreno’s request is in response to calls from a group of residents and advocates for the homeless — some who bring up the issue at almost every council meeting — to stop issuing citations for camping and seizing homeless people’s unattended belongings. Instead, they say the city should establish “safe zones” where they can camp and access bathrooms and showers.

“This is what is happening in the ‘City of Kindness,’” said resident Laura Robbins during Tuesday’s regular council meeting, referring to Mayor Tom Tait’s citywide campaign to improve community relations. “Had this been an outbreak of the flu it would be treated as an emergency situation…it is an emergency and should be treated as such.”

Matthew Mariscal, a student at Fullerton College, criticized the city for closing park bathrooms at night, saying “when the parks close, their bodies don’t just close down.”

The activists’ request is not far off from what is already being done by the county, which in October declared a state of emergency to address a massive homeless encampment at the Santa Ana Civic Center. This came after years of complaints from the public and government employees about unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the public plaza.

The county has since estanblished a temporary transitional center in an abandoned, open-air bus terminal that provides basic services like bathrooms, showers, laundry, storage, and a safe place to sleep at night. Also, county employees are stationed at the center, which has been dubbed “The Courtyard,” to connect people to services.

Tait, responding to public comments critical of the city, said that while Anaheim has not done all it can to address homelessness, it has done more than any other city in Orange County. The county’s first year-round, full-service homeless shelter is slated to be built in Anaheim.

Additionally, the city contributed $500,000 toward the shelter it coordinates the Anaheim Homeless Collaborative, and runs two check-in storage centers. Officials claim that since January 2014, 621 homeless people in Anaheim have been reunited with family or placed in housing.

Moreno, however, said city officials shouldn’t spend too much time congratulating themselves for being the best of a bad lot.

“I think our bar has been quite low in Orange County,” he said during the meeting.

The city of Anaheim may consider lifting its ban on camping in response to a growing homeless population
The city of Anaheim may consider lifting its ban on camping in response to a growing homeless population

Anti-camping ordinances are common in the county and cities from Santa Ana to Laguna Beach have come under fire for how they enforce the laws.

Tait, Kring and Councilwoman Kris Murray were all on the council in 2013 when Anaheim’s ordinance was unanimously passed. The law bans the use of ‘camping paraphernalia,’ cooking and camping in public spaces, and allows the police department to confiscate or impound abandoned belongings left in public spaces.

Police leave behind a notice of where items can be picked up at a location in Central Anaheim, said city spokesman Mike Lyster.

And beyond the ordinance, Anaheim has been heavily criticized in recent years for how it polices the homeless. In 2015, Councilwoman Lucille Kring was lambasted by advocates for her proposal to convert La Palma Park, where many homeless people congregate, into a dog park to “keep the homeless out.”

The city temporarily suspended enforcement of the ordinance for about a month in late 2015 in response to calls from residents and activists, and following the lead of cities like Santa Ana and Huntington Beach in relaxing enforcement of their laws.

And since then police have selectively enforced the law in anticipation of the shelter, which is scheduled to open this summer.

“The officers have a lot of discretion. So if a private property owner says something or complains, that could trigger some action,” Lyster said.

Activists want Anaheim to model a program in Seattle, which in response to a proliferation of massive homeless encampments established designated zones on public property for the homeless to camp in tents and tiny houses.

The encampments cannot be in residential zones or operate for more than two years on the same property, according to the Seattle Times.  The city has since announced plans to open three new authorized encampments.

The council is expected to take up the issue at either its Jan. 24 or Feb. 7 meeting. The advocates say they will be back every city council meeting to talk about the issue until the city takes action.

“With the current weather conditions, it needs to be addressed immediately,” said resident Jeanine Robbins.

Voice of OC is a non-profit investigative newsroom focused on daily coverage of Orange County’s city halls and government agencies

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