Mexican cultural center to sign agreement with city to clear homeless encampment

About 40 people live on two parking lots at El Centro Cultural of Mexico in Santa Ana.
About 40 people live on two parking lots at El Centro Cultural of Mexico in Santa Ana on Feb. 24.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

After facing fines and the threat of an abatement court order, a Mexican cultural center in Santa Ana has agreed to work with the city to clear a homeless encampment in its parking lots.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, homeless people have been living in the El Centro Cultural de México’s lots. The numbers have steadily grown to an encampment with more than 40 people.

El Centro, which is a linchpin for the local Latino community, has been fined about $1,800 by the city for not keeping the area clean.

But El Centro has continued to allow the homeless to live in the lots despite pressure from the city, contending that the homeless should not be criminalized.

The city sent El Centro a proposed plan last week to clear out the homeless encampment within 45 days. City Manager Kristine Ridge said in an interview on Friday that the city would work with El Centro as part of the plan by providing two resource fairs for the homeless, portable toilets and washing stations. The city will also waive the fines with El Centro’s commitment to clear the encampment.

The city gave El Centro a deadline of March 12 to agree to the plan, but officials at the center said they needed more time to consider the agreement.

If El Centro chose not to sign the agreement, the city would seek an abatement warrant from a judge, which would allow the city to take charge and “rectify the property conditions.”

El Centro Cultural de Mexico in Santa Ana has been allowing homeless people to live in their parking lots.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Ben Vazquez, a longtime volunteer and board member with El Centro, said Tuesday night that the center signed the agreement and sent it to the city.

Santa Ana spokesman Paul Eakins confirmed that the city received the signed agreement.

Vazquez said the decision was made largely in response to the threat of the abatement warrant.

However, Vazquez said the portable bathrooms and wash stations will be beneficial for the homeless on their lots. He also said it’s important for the center to get rid of the fines. El Centro’s finances have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Vazquez also said it will give the homeless a reprieve from harassment by police for at least the 45-day period. Vazquez said police have been throwing away homeless people’s belongings.

It will also provide the center with a chance to “come to the table with policy makers,” Vazquez said. “We want to talk with policy makers to help create positive change for folks who are unsheltered,” he said.

Vazquez said the center didn’t see the encampment as a long-term answer. He mentioned that the center may reopen as COVID-19 numbers continue to improve, and it may need its parking lots back for community members attending the center.

“I believe they’re a well-meaning nonprofit,” Ridge said. “I think it’s an issue that they inherited and they took it on and they are extremely ill-equipped to deal with it.”

Ridge said the city has received a number of complaints from residents about the encampment.

A woman tying a tarp at a homeless encampment at El Centro.
A woman tying a tarp at a homeless encampment at El Centro.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Eakins sent a message from one of the residents to TimesOC.

“I write this letter in an effort to bring greater attention to the homeless encampment and the increase of homeless and drug users in this encampment that is occupying the parking lot of El Centro Cultural de México located at 837 N. Ross Street in Santa Ana,” the resident’s message reads. “Over the past several months the population of this homeless and drug user encampment has increased exponentially and it is beginning to have a negative effect in the very densely populated Willard Neighborhood.

”... As we get closer to the reopening of schools such as El Sol Academy which is slated to open March 15, and children begin going back to school, allowing this encampment to continue unchecked diminishes the level of safety of our children.”

Vazquez said the goal is to connect homeless people with housing and shelters if they are receptive to it. If there are any homeless individuals still on the property after 45 days, Vazquez believes they will go somewhere else if El Centro asks them.

“We have a good relationship with the folks, and they know what we’ve been through, so I think they would just find another place,” Vazquez said. “I think they’re very grateful for what we’re going through.”

Several homeless people have expressed gratitude for the center’s help.

“Thank God for this place,” said Alex Beltran, who has been living at El Centro for months.

“They have been very helpful,” said Nathan Muiars, who lives in the parking lot. “Most places would usually just call the police.”

Vazquez said El Centro will continue working with homeless service providers independent of the city like Wound Walk and Illumination Foundation.

Alex Beltran, 47 of Santa Ana said he has been living in the parking lot for months at El Centro.
Alex Beltran, 47 of Santa Ana said he has been living in the parking lot for months at El Centro.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Ridge said the growth of the encampment could “probably partially” be owed to the closure last month of the county’s Courtyard shelter in downtown Santa Ana. The county has been transitioning to its new Yale shelter in the city.

“As the county was transitioning over to Yale, I think that there are, unfortunately, some very service-resistant homeless that we find in our community,” Ridge said. “And I think it gave them an opportunity to walk over to a different location. Unfortunately, for them, there are a lot of services that are offered in shelters and these individuals have missed out on that opportunity.”

Some homeless people may be discouraged to enter an Orange County homeless shelter considering the large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19, which have infected hundreds and killed one person.

“If it’s not fully resolved in 45 days, then the city would have to just — similar to what I mentioned before — step in and address the issue,” Ridge said, referencing the abatement warrant she referred to earlier in the interview.

“But I trust El Centro, if they’re willing to sign on to the settlement agreement, that they understand the parameters that they would need to do to have it fully resolved.”

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