Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream said Monday after a two-hour meeting with members of the county Human Relations Commission that the city would not change its policy of throwing away homeless people's belongings that are left unattended on public property.
"We said we felt that we had to continue that policy . . . to upgrade the level of maintenance in the parks and public spaces in the area," Ream said in an interview outside City Hall.
Human Relations Commission member Jean Forbath said after the private meeting that she was "very disappointed. They would not move their position in any way, shape or form."
Also attending the meeting were commission member Becky Esparza, two commission staff members, an ACLU representative and City Council aide Lori A. Howard-Griffin.
Earlier Monday, five homeless people who sleep at night in the alcoves of Civic Center buildings met with a city official and later with members of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, to protest their recent treatment.
In particular, the homeless people complained about an incident Sunday in which they said they were rousted from their sleep at gunpoint by law enforcement officers and were told to leave the area. The group was not sure what agency the officers were from, but the Sheriff's Department is investigating, a department spokesman said.
The controversy arose last month when Santa Ana maintenance crews began picking up sleeping bags, blankets, sacks and other property left unattended in parks and in the Civic Center complex downtown. A week ago, the city had already removed enough of what it said is trash to fill five one-ton trucks, said Allen Doby, recreation and community services director.
City officials say the policy is necessary because vagrants are "trashing" the city's parks. The policy has angered both homeless people and groups that provide them with such essentials as food, shelter and counseling. Some people have complained that their identification, medicine, watches and other valuables have been thrown away along with the bedrolls, and that the maintenance crews go deep into shrubs and bushes to find unattended items stowed for a short time by their owners.
Ream said he assured the commissioners that "if something looks like it has value . . . to a reasonable person . . . it would be retained for 90 days."
But Forbath questioned how Recreation Department employees could make that judgment.
"Our objection is what's not valuable to a reasonable person might be a treasure to one of these homeless people," said Forbath, who is also executive director of Share Our Selves, a Costa Mesa-based emergency services agency for the homeless and other people in need.
"Our request was that the city not throw away any of the possessions that they confiscate," Forbath said. "There could certainly be a creative solution if they really wanted to do it. But there's been just no attempt at a creative solution other than throwing it away."
Forbath said she told Ream that the city has a "real perception problem in the community" with regard to the homeless. The parks policy and an ordinance under consideration that would make it harder for groups to serve meals to the homeless in public parks are creating the impression that the city wants to drive the homeless out of town, she said.
"He (Ream) said . . . that's not the point at all, that they were just interested in keeping up the parks--primarily Center Park (on the west side of town near the Orange County Rescue Mission) and Civic Center Plaza," Forbath said.
About 50 people, including some who are homeless, gathered outside City Hall early Monday morning to protest the city's policy. After the meeting, five people met with council aide Howard-Griffin to complain about their treatment and the Sunday morning incident.
Griffin referred the group to the Sheriff's Department once it was clear--because of the group's descriptions of the officers' uniforms--that Santa Ana police officers were not involved.
One of the five, John Close, 49, said he was asleep shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday when two men in khaki-colored uniforms approached him and told him to get up, searched his bedroll and ordered him to leave. "One of them had a gun pointed right at me," said Close, estimating the distance to the gun at 5 or 6 feet. "They said: 'You can't sleep here anymore. You've got to leave.' "
Michael Watkins, an unofficial spokesman for the group and a member of a countywide homeless task force, said he saw the two men roust eight people in the same manner before approaching him and telling him that he had spent his "last night in the fleabag motel."
Watkins and a few other people met with internal affairs investigators from the Sheriff's Department on Monday morning, although it is not clear what, if any, law enforcement agency the men might have belonged to.