Santa Ana city council declares 'crisis' over homeless encampments in civic center

Santa Ana’s City Council voted late Tuesday to declare a “public health and safety crisis” over a mushrooming homeless encampment in the Civic Center that has attracted more than 450 homeless people in recent months.

The resolution, backed by Councilwoman Michele Martinez, called for the city to boost policing and code enforcement in the “tent city,” while pressuring the county to step up within 30 days and develop a health and safety plan for the area.

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said the “intent of this resolution is to tell the county to do something — to act. We’re trying to secure the environment so women and children are safe.”

Many transients gather in an area between Broadway and Flower Street, bordered by Civic Center Drive and Santa Ana Boulevard.

Officials have said they are worried not only for the more than 15,000 government workers stationed at the sprawling complex of offices for city, county and state employees but for members of the public. They say people have the right to feel safe while conducting business in downtown Santa Ana, the seat of Orange County.

Yet  government employees report that, month by month, the homeless population is swelling, climbing beyond 400 earlier this year. Drugs, feces, urine and trash line the corridors between government buildings, and workers in the area are so fearful of walking to their cars that some have requested escorts, according to officials.

"What are they waiting for — an epidemic like typhoid?" asked Peter Katz, a retired postal worker and 50-year resident.

Katz was one of more than two dozen people who spoke in public comments that stretched over two hours. He urged city leaders to take the step to protect government workers and jurors who serve in the county courthouse and spoke of the dangers of vermin and drugs.

“You don't want Santa Ana to be known as being too friendly to the homeless," Katz said after the council voted. "Others will be coming here."

In 2015, Orange County’s homeless population was estimated at nearly 15,300 people, compared with 12,700 two years earlier, according to a count conducted by 2-1-1 Orange County, a nonprofit helping to guide residents to health and human services.

Santa Ana officials accuse county officials of underestimating the problem. The new resolution asks the county to host a summit on homelessness, with participation from all 34 cities.

The resolution was opposed by Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilman David  Benavides, with Pulido suggesting that the city should push the county to spend more to keep its county seat safer.

"I applaud your work,” Pulido said to Martinez. But he and Benavides said they wanted more time to review an upcoming budget that City Manager David Cavazos will prepare, detailing costs such as adding more lighting around the cluster of government buildings.

Many residents and social workers voiced worries that the resolution allows for the criminalization of the homeless since it calls for beefed-up policing and stricter enforcement. They said law enforcement should not ticket those on the streets, because being homeless is not a crime.

"Increased enforcement violates people's rights," said Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "You don't respond to a humanitarian crisis by punishing people for the crisis."

So far this year, police have made 54 felony arrests and 281 arrests for misdemeanors and code violations in the area, according to Martinez. 

City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said police are issuing fewer than one citation a day in the encampment area, and citations come only after numerous warnings to potential offenders.

Basil Kimbrew, a French chef from Moreno Valley who organizes free meals at the Civic Center at least twice a month, asked to partner with the council on outreach work or provide cooking lessons to those living in the streets.

"These people will never leave until we as a community show them how to leave," said Kimbrew, a U.S. Army veteran.

"I was one of them. I was a broken soldier who lost everything, but others pulled me up and this is what we should do now for those in need,” he said. “Let's show compassion rather than just say ‘crisis.’ "

Earlier Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed to open a temporary shelter at an old bus terminal near the Civic Center.

Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

anh.do@latimes.com 

Twitter: @newsterrier

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