Newport Beach locals express sympathy for the homeless on their streets, but say enforcement still needed

Newport Beach homeless
A homeless man sleeps with his belongings packed in bags next to him at the Newport Pier.
(File Photo)

Newport Beach residents told the city’s homelessness task force this week that they’re sympathetic toward the plight of people living on the streets locally — and that’s partly why recently more-visible encampments need enforcement.

“Everyone has a natural human compassion for the homeless, but it’s insanity to allow them to just pitch a tent on any sidewalk, park or public space,” said Newport Coast resident John Schatz, who was one of about 15 people to address the task force during its meeting Monday. “It breeds disease and crime and becomes an obvious health and safety hazard for the homeless themselves as well as for the rest of the community. We’re not doing them any favors and we’re certainly not being compassionate by allowing the homeless to live in filthy encampments.”

Because Newport real estate is expensive, he said it’s more cost effective to move the needy to a cheaper location far inland for shelter and treatment.

“You may call that ‘NIMBYism,’ but I call it common sense,” he said, using an acronym meaning “not in my backyard.”

The Newport Beach task force formed earlier this year as part of a local push to address homelessness. It plans to develop strategies to integrate homelessness services and build a list of community partners, review temporary housing solutions and develop metrics to monitor homelessness reduction.

Around the time the city filled out the 10-member panel with a roster of citizens and City Council members, it also committed to spend $1 million over the next five years on homelessness outreach and housing placement through a contract with the nonprofit City Net to enhance the social services provided by the local Police Department — which also partners with the Orange County Health Care Agency to help homeless people with social, health and housing needs.

Officials from the city and Hoag Hospital also brokered a deal for the hospital to put $3 million over the next 10 years toward a potential future shelter in the area.

Between April and June, City Net workers in Newport made 141 contacts, engaged 35 people in formal case management and moved eight people off the streets, organization Vice President Matt Bates told the task force.

During last January’s Orange County Point in Time count, Newport’s recorded homeless population was 64, up from the 39 documented during the previous survey in 2017. While still just a fraction of the nearly 7,000 homeless people tallied countywide, some locals have expressed frustration that the issue is becoming a higher-profile one in the city.

A growing cluster of tents near the public bus depot at San Joaquin Hills Road and MacArthur Boulevard has motivated some to turn to city leaders for solutions.

“I question why it’s legal to allow people to expose us to disease, feces, everything you can think of right here outside this City Hall and nobody can do anything about it,” resident Gerry Giannini said to applause.

Newport, like municipalities throughout California and other Western states, is constrained in how it can clear the homeless from the streets. A 2018 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals restricts cities from prosecuting people for sleeping on public property if no shelter beds are available.

Newport Beach does not have a homeless shelter within its borders. In neighboring cities, there is a temporary 50-bed facility at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene in Costa Mesa and the 45-bed Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Beach.

“What we are seeing in our city is like nothing we’ve seen before, and we know that living on the streets is not healthy or safe for anyone,” said resident Ruth Sanchez Kobayashi, who also has voiced her concerns to the City Council. “Permitting an environment that is hospitable to living on the streets is not compassionate to this vulnerable population, nor is it reasonable to the rest of the community.”

She asked that the safety of all neighbors be part of the task force’s focus.

Task force Chairman and city Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill said police enforcement issues are in flux in light of the 9th Circuit’s decision, which concerned a case in Boise, Idaho.

“There are a lot of judges trying to determine exactly what that opinion means,” he said.

He told the audience to let the City Council know if they think Newport should join the city of Boise in its request for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal, or write a brief supporting Boise in the case.