Looking to cut down on homeless services in Costa Mesa, Mayor Eric Bever asked the city CEO to investigate some of the city's most prominent charities.
Costa Mesa's homeless population has been a stubborn issue for city officials. Residents consistently complain that individuals overtake public facilities like Lions Park and the Costa Mesa Donald Dungan Library.
The city has tried to make it less hospitable for homeless people by banning smoking in parks and other measures, but they just congregate elsewhere, officials and residents say.
Now, Bever is looking to address what some say attracts homeless people from other cities.
"These businesses—nonprofit, profit, whatever—are creating tremendous impacts on our community," said Bever, who compared the nonprofits to nightclubs that bother neighbors.
It would go a long way to solving the problem of homeless people coming to Costa Mesa, he added, "If we managed to put the soup kitchen out of business."
That assertion is off-base, said Shannon Santos, the executive director of Someone Cares.
A survey the soup kitchen conducted in 2011 found that 86% of its guests said they were from Costa Mesa, and about 40% were low-income seniors, many of whom live in the nearby Bethel Towers apartments, she said.
"There's a big misconception that the only people we're feeding here at the kitchen are the homeless people," Santos said. "I would love to invite the mayor to come in and see who we are really serving, and I think he'd be surprised."
Bever's hard-line request came outside of the city's task forces designed to address homelessness. The Homeless Task Force and Neighborhood Improvement Task Force have worked to reconnect homeless people with their families, discouraged groups from providing food in Lions Park, and restricted where people can lock up their belongings at the library, among other measures.
"Those are the kinds of things that we're doing, because we want to address this problem holistically, and not go in with guns blazing … and end up in court," said city Assistant CEO Rick Francis, one of the leaders of the Neighborhood Improvement Task Force.
Los Angeles found itself in a lawsuit when it tried to seize personal belongings left unattended on skid row — one of the measures that Costa Mesa officials are planning to implement.
Two residents complained at Tuesday's council meeting about unattended belongings and other homeless issues.
"We have homeless people out in our neighborhoods," said Beth Refakes. "It's getting out of control."
Lions Park is about midway between Someone Cares on 19th Street and SOS on Superior Avenue. The two operators have been in the city for decades — Someone Cares for 26 years and SOS for 43.
Someone Cares serves meals daily, and SOS provides a variety of services, from groceries and clothing to mental health counseling and dental care.
SOS Executive Director Karen McGlinn said her clients are from both Costa Mesa and other Orange County cities, and that Bever "should be proud" that "we are a center that's protecting the health and welfare of the people in the county."
McGlinn said Bever, who is termed out in November, has never visited the center.
"He has no knowledge. His message is old," she said. "Thank God he is going out the door."
In about two weeks, city administrators are planning to meet with Santos at Someone Cares. Francis said the city is limited in how it can deal with the nonprofits, but it will try to get them to focus on Costa Mesa residents.
"We can't infringe on the rights of the service providers to do what they do," Francis said.
City CEO Tom Hatch pleaded with the City Council to be patient Tuesday, and asked for six months to make some more progress on homelessness. He said that the city needs to budget more resources to implement the Homeless Task Force recommendations.
Not all of the other council members agreed with Bever.
Councilwoman Wendy Leece said Wednesday that the soup kitchen could provide homeless people with more counseling, but acknowledged the nonprofits are also providing locals with critical care.
"They are Costa Mesa families, and I think that's where the mayor needs to step back," said Leece, the liaison to the Homeless Task Force. "They are Costa Mesa residents who have fallen on hard times."
Determining how many homeless people come from elsewhere is difficult, Francis said, because some people identify themselves with Costa Mesa if they have been receiving services here regularly.
A Vanguard University professor plans to conduct a homeless census in later this month, in conjunction with The Churches Consortium, a faith-based group addressing the city's homeless issues. One of its goals is to understand where exactly people come from, says Becks Heyhoe, a facilitator with the consortium.
In 2009, a Vanguard census found more than 100 chronically homeless people on the city's streets and in its parks.
While other Orange County cities have similar services, they might not be as comprehensive as those offered at a place like SOS.
"In a perfect world, everyone would have their own self-contained service model so people wouldn't have to travel here," Francis said, "but we have to deal with the reality before us."
"We're not going to snap our fingers and make these people go away," he added.
Bever did not return a message seeking additional comment Wednesday afternoon.