A desert town’s extreme crackdown on outsiders blamed for crimes: Mayor compares the effort to killing roaches

After the jail cells and city streets, life under one of Sharon Green’s roofs comes as a relief.

On a wall in one of the three large houses that Green runs for homeless felons in this city, a motivational poster reassures the ex-inmates living there, “You can be a masterpiece and a work in progress at the same time.” Pinned nearby are a slew of job applications to local fast-food restaurants and big-box stores, some of which are labeled as “felony friendly.”

Beyond Green’s doors, however, Hesperia is much less welcoming.

The city’s elected officials have been waging an aggressive campaign to shut down Green’s houses, which provide beds, meals and other help to low-level offenders who have nowhere to go when they are released from jail under the state’s justice reform measures.

The effort against Green is part of a broader push to purge the city of outsiders who Hesperia officials claim are overrunning the city and causing a crime wave. The city’s mayor has compared the move to exterminating cockroaches. “We better improve our demographics!” Russ Blewett, another councilman, proclaimed at a council meeting.

To back up its talk, the council adopted a law that requires landlords to swiftly evict any tenant whom police merely suspect of criminal activity. The city has also unearthed a restrictive local ordinance it long ignored for its fight with Green that makes group homes all but impossible to operate.

Hesperia is far from the only city in California to crack down on group homes serving the mentally ill, addicts, criminals or others. But the high desert town 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles has gone well beyond the usual opposition. Its aggressive stance has sparked a legal battle in federal court over whether Hesperia’s actions amount to unconstitutional discrimination.

The case underscores the challenges bedeviling California's ongoing attempt to dramatically reduce its prison population. The success of the state’s strategy, which diverts low-level offenders from state prison and into county-run programs, rests heavily on having transitional homes like Green’s helping ex-inmates reintegrate into society.

“It’s easy to understand the concerns of people living next door to these types of houses, but we need to find some tolerance,” said Craig Lawson, a land-use consultant who assists developers providing housing for the homeless. “And if that means living next to a house with people who are trying to get their lives back on track, we have to say, ‘OK, this is part of the solution.’”

State law protects transitional homes like Green’s, requiring cities to treat them as regular residential properties and forbidding any special regulations or restrictions. City officials in Hesperia, however, insist they simply are defending local, law-abiding residents from bearing the brunt of the fallout from misguided justice reforms they say threaten public safety.

“The criminals have all the rights,” said Hesperia’s mayor, Bill Holland. “We’re trying to do what we can to minimize the impact on our community. We’re trying to take a stand, trying to do what we can to protect the good people.”

The fight is taking place as Hesperia experiences sweeping demographic changes.

One of a handful of communities in the Victor Valley, a wind-swept desert landscape across the Cajon Pass from San Bernardino, Hesperia has grown rapidly since 2000, its population increasing 50% to about  92,000 residents. The makeup of the place has changed dramatically in that time, shifting from a city where whites accounted for more than 60% of the population to one in which Hispanics are now the majority, census figures show.

Residents on average earn less than the state’s median income, and the percentage of people living in poverty has climbed significantly over the past decade to more than 20%, according to census numbers. 

Green, a pastor who runs a nonprofit organization, first rented a house in Hesperia for the homeless in 2012. She encountered no problems with the city, which in fact provided funds to her nonprofit for a few years.

She went on to partner with the San Bernardino County Probation Department, which needed Green’s group and other nonprofits to provide beds for homeless inmates being released under the state’s so-called prison realignment plan. Under the plan, lower-level offenders who did not commit violent or sex-related crimes are jailed in county facilities instead of state prisons and, after release, are supervised by county probation officers. State officials have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to counties to help them handle the influx.

Green’s operation was the type of program that state officials imagined when realignment became law in 2011 as California sought a way to reduce its teeming prison population. But her problems began in January 2015, when she rented a second property in Hesperia  — a drab house and guesthouse on a dusty, residential road where desert winds whip American flags stuck in chain-link fences.

Green put 13 men, all of them on county probation, at the address. They spent their days looking for work and attending job training classes or addiction counseling. At least one staff member was in the house at all hours, according to Green.

Frequent visits to the house by probation officers drew neighbors’ attention. Although they were routine checks, rumors and accusations spread along the road.

“Thirty years I’ve lived in peace…not having to fear if someone was going to attack or hurt me,” Annette Spiller, a next-door neighbor, told Hesperia City Council members at a meeting weeks after the home opened. “Eighteen days ago, a dark cloud settled over my community, and now I feel like I can’t even go out of my own home.”

Spiller asserted, inaccurately, that the men living next to her were violent felons. Her comments were followed by those of the neighborhood watch captain, who suggested the men were pedophiles targeting children on the street. Several others added to the chorus of complaints.

The council rallied behind the angry residents, and city code enforcers suddenly began issuing citations at the house. Calling the neighbors “heroes” at a meeting, Blewett warned that crime had surged throughout Hesperia. It was, he said, a result of  “the state of California releasing all these deadbeats into our community.”

In the eyes of Blewett and other councilmen, Green’s program was a symptom of a larger problem brought on by prison realignment and Proposition 47, a 2014 law that reduced certain drug possession and theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. 

The council’s doomsday concerns about a crime wave and flood of criminals into the city are not supported by the county sheriff’s crime statistics. While thefts rose by 15% between 2014 and 2015, burglaries in Hesperia dropped by 30%. Overall serious crime fell by 3%.

Green said any claim that her program endangers residents is unfounded. Since starting work with the county Probation Department in 2013, she has housed 361 people on probation. Of those, about a third have been kicked out of the program and rehoused elsewhere by probation officials, largely for failing to adhere to the program’s strict rules. Green says 86% of the others have successfully left the program with jobs and their own place to live, while less than 5% have committed new crimes and been re-incarcerated.

Amid the neighbors’ and council’s growing outcry, Green chose to close the house that had generated so much anger. The city soon turned its attention to the other house, which Green had operated without incident for years. Code enforcers began showing up there to cite the house for violations.

The City Council also introduced its tough rental ordinance. The measure requires landlords to start eviction proceedings within 10 days of being notified by police that a tenant is suspected of “criminal activity” in or around the rental property. The law does not require the tenant to be arrested before the mandatory eviction proceedings are triggered.

Holland, the mayor, said at a council meeting last September that the rental ordinance would help the city rid itself of an unwanted element the same way “you would call an exterminator to kill roaches. Same difference.”

“The people that aggravate us aren’t from here,” said Councilman Eric Schmidt at the same meeting. “They’re from somewhere else, and they come here to hide, they come here for our affordable housing. … We all know there is a significant number of them that come here with their tainted histories.”

Laura Davison, 26, is the type of person the council members say they don’t want living among them. Davison, who has lived in Green’s house for women since May, was convicted of forgery in March and released on three years’ probation.

Davison’s days are spent using the bus pass provided by the program to check in with the managers at a car wash and others at restaurants, asking for work. She used to live in Los Angeles but says she plans to make a new life in Hesperia, where rents are cheaper.

“We’re all trying to get back to normalcy,” she said. “Why can’t we live where everyone else lives, if we’re doing the right thing?”

The city’s rental ordinance took effect in January. By then, Green had opened two additional homes in the city, bringing her total to three. In all, the houses can accommodate about 40 men and women, who can stay for up to a year.

Within weeks of the law going into effect, a deputy from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, which polices Hesperia, notified the owner of one of Green’s houses that criminal activity was taking place at the property. He followed up with another letter two weeks later.

In response to questions from The Times, the Sheriff’s Department acknowledged that the first letter was not spurred by any actual criminal activity, but because probation officers and deputies were making frequent visits to the house to check on the former inmates. The second letter, the department said, was sent after a man living in the house was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia.

Green disputes that the man committed any crimes at the house, but the rental law gives tenants no way to challenge a deputy’s findings.

The owner of the house served Green with eviction papers in May. Weeks later, the owners of the other two houses Green rented did the same, saying in court records that they no longer could afford to remain in the city’s crosshairs. Along with using the rental ordinance, city code enforcers had leveled tens of thousands of dollars in fines on the homeowners for violating the city’s strict group-home law, among other things. 

In July, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte issued a preliminary injunction in a federal lawsuit brought by Green against the city. The injunction puts the evictions on hold and bars the city from enforcing its group-home and rental ordinances against Green’s landlords until a jury can decide whether they are legal.

Birotte concluded there were “serious questions” whether the ordinances violated the constitutional rights of people on probation and renters in Hesperia. He recently issued a stern rebuke to the city and reiterated the terms of his injunction after Hesperia officials continued to pressure the homeowners to pay their fines and proceed with the evictions.

Green said she largely sees the transitional housing she provides in practical terms: If the people she serves, most of whom have abused drugs and alcohol, were sent back onto the streets after being released from custody, it’s almost a given they would return to lives of crime.

“They may not be living in a home on your block,” she said, “but let times hit hard enough and they could find their way to your door saying, ‘I need some food.’ ’’

joel.rubin@latimes.com

For more news on federal courts in Southern California, follow me on Twitter: @joelrubin

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