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Santa Ana says Mexican cultural center owes nearly $40,000 for clearing of homeless encampment

Dozens of homeless people lived in the parking lots of El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana in February.
Dozens of homeless people lived in the parking lots of El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana in February. The city has since cleared the encampment.
(Raul Roa / TimesOC)

At the beginning of the pandemic, homeless people started living in the parking lots of a Mexican cultural center in Santa Ana.

The leaders of El Centro Cultural de México decided to allow the more than 40 people to live on the property with the hopes of trying to connect them to housing and other services. Then the city started fining the center for not keeping the area clean. Eventually, the city received more than 100 complaints from surrounding neighbors about refuse and public-safety issues. It threatened to seek an abatement court order to clear the encampment.

El Centro, which is a linchpin for the local Latino community, agreed in mid-March to work with the city to clear the encampment within 45 days. Once that deadline passed, the city obtained an abatement order and cleared the lots of refuse on May 13. According to city data, 28 people were connected with a homeless shelter prior to clearing the encampment.

Now, the city is seeking reimbursement of the funds it used to carry out the warrant, including the city staff time needed for the legal proceedings and to clear trash and other debris from the property. But El Centro’s leadership contends the $39,604 will be a difficult financial obstacle for the nonprofit.

“We handle our building right, we will maintain, but $40,000 is 10 months of our mortgage payment,” Ben Vazquez, a longtime volunteer and board member with El Centro, said to the City Council on Tuesday night. “Like every nonprofit, we’re working month to month, grant to grant. We don’t have big donors. Don’t charge us the $40,000.”

After several El Centro members asked for lenience, the City Council narrowly approved the reimbursement with a 4-3 vote. Mayor Vicente Sarmiento and council members Jessie Lopez and Johnathan Hernandez cast the dissenting votes.

One of several homeless people who were living in a parking lot at El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana.
One of several homeless people who were living in a parking lot at El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana.
(Raul Roa / TimesOC)

Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan said the center was ill-prepared to act as a homeless shelter.

Established by a group of migrant women more than two decades ago, El Centro Cultural de México at 837 N. Ross St. provides a link to important cultural customs for the local Latino community. Community members can learn traditional Mexican instruments, take dance classes and attend community meetings, art shows and exhibitions.

The center also features Radio Santa Ana, which plays a crucial role in advocating for the city’s underserved Latino population, covering stories and playing music that wouldn’t otherwise grace the airwaves.

“I hadn’t heard of El Centro before this entire incident and obviously it has a lot of benefit and does really great things for the community,” Phan said. “But that doesn’t mean that El Centro didn’t violate the municipal code. I’m very frustrated because you were not good neighbors — 170-something complaints in a year means we were getting complaints every other day from your neighbors.”

Lopez said the fee would be “devastating” for a nonprofit like El Centro. Hernandez said he is not open to “penalizing a small community nonprofit” and that it has provided important services to children and families.

“I know that their intentions were well, I know that their heart was in the right place,” Hernandez said. “The only area where I want to express very clear concern is I wish that they would have been more communicative with me, especially given that their building is in my ward. I’m here at service to you all, on my worst of days.”

City staff said during the meeting that the reimbursement fee could turn into a lien on the property, which is owned by El Centro.

Sarmiento made a motion to reexamine the abatement costs and explore whether the city could seek any funds from the county. In February, the county closed its Courtyard shelter, the last walk-in shelter in Orange County. Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge said in a prior interview that the growth of the encampment could “probably partially” be owed to the closure of the shelter. It was once home to 400 homeless people. The county opened its Yale shelter, but it is more restrictive, requiring referrals.

Alex Beltran, 47, of Santa Ana was living in a parking lot at El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana.
Alex Beltran, 47, of Santa Ana was living in a parking lot at El Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana.
(Raul Roa / TimesOC)

Sarmiento specifically questioned whether the city could look at the cost to the city attorney’s office in the reimbursement fee. The most substantial expenses in the city’s bill are $23,130 for Deputy City Atty. Jose Montoya’s time and $6,728 for the time of 12 Santa Ana police officers. A copy of the city’s expenses can be viewed here.

“The county really did close the Courtyard without any notice at that time, and I do think that triggered a lot of problems in addition to this,” Sarmiento said. “Maybe this is something that we can also talk about, is how we can maybe try to cost recover from them.”

Sarmiento also proposed that the city could replace some of the hours included in the reimbursement fee to construct a fence around the property to prevent the encampment sprouting up again. Staff mentioned during the meeting that homeless people were still being spotted in the El Centro parking lots.

“Because if we continue seeing this problem, we’re going to be back here again,” Sarmiento said. “This amount ... it’ll be $45,000, it’ll be $50,000. And then it’s just a never-ending problem.”

Sarmiento’s motion failed 3-4, with council members Phan, Phil Bacerra, Nelida Mendoza and David Penaloza casting the dissenting votes.

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