Newport Beach residents alarmed and frustrated by increasingly visible homeless encampments are demanding to know the city’s immediate plans for getting people off the street.
Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s homelessness task force became a de facto town hall gathering sprinkled with tense moments as residents grilled city staff members, outside experts and the City Council members and local volunteers who make up the panel.
Teresa Hernandez suggested that a shelter is past due.
“We’ve known this was coming here,” she said, referring to the dismantling early last year of the 700-person encampment in the Santa Ana River bed in Anaheim and ensuing moves by cities, including Newport neighbor Costa Mesa, to build shelters.
“The fact that Newport Beach does not have in place a temporary shelter right now — we’ve got enough money, we’ve got very educated people here — I’m astounded,” she added.
Residents also gave the recently formed task force an earful at a meeting in July, telling them local hot spots for the homeless — such as the public bus depot at San Joaquin Hills Road and MacArthur Boulevard and the two municipal piers — needed more enforcement, which also, they said, would be a show of compassion.
About 10 tents are clustered at the bus depot, mostly on the wooded slope at the station’s north end.
Susan Bolus told the task force that one of the tents had a “No trespassing” sign.
“Honest to God,” she said, clearly exasperated. “I have a picture of that.”
She said she wanted immediate action.
“What can be done now to get them out of there?” she asked. “I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but I pay way too much in taxes to have a campsite on the corner of MacArthur and San Joaquin taking over the whole bus terminal.”
Task force member Tom Peterson, part of a subcommittee investigating the bus depot, said the property will soon get new landscaping and drip irrigation on the slope. The watering system will displace the tents, and the new plant palette will be less shady, he said.
Also planned is a perimeter fence with a locking gate to enclose the depot when buses aren’t running between 11:15 p.m. and 5 a.m., preventing overnight stays. The Orange County Transportation Authority posted a request for contractor proposals last week.
Hernandez held up Anaheim as a model in rapid response. In December, the City Council there voted to build an interim 200-bed emergency homeless shelter in a vacant industrial building and opened the facility two weeks later. At the same time, the city worked on two longer-term sites, which opened with a combined 326 beds in February and March.
Doing so helped clear homeless people out of parks, officials have said, and allowed the city to enforce its ordinances barring people from camping overnight on public property.
Newport, like other cities in the West, is constrained on how it can clear homeless people 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. The nearest are in Costa Mesa and Laguna Beach.
Hernandez said she reached out to Newport officials after first seeing the bus depot tents about six weeks ago but “nothing has happened.”
“I think I speak for a lot of residents: We pay a hell of a lot of money in taxes and a lot of money to live here,” she said. “We want to hear solutions and solutions now.”
Nancy Engle Vanotten suggested the city educate residents on their rights when coexisting with homeless people. She also suggested challenging laws “that are now in place that protect the rights of the homeless to the detriment of the citizens.”
“I hope you will all be working for us as hard as the work is done for the homeless,” she told the task force.
The task force recommends policy decisions to the full City Council but does not enact them directly.
Councilwoman Joy Brenner, a task force member, said city officials also are frustrated — but state meetings laws mean the group has to gather information and make decisions in public meetings.
Councilman Brad Avery, the task force’s vice chairman, said residents’ comments were valuable.
“There’s nothing more powerful than residents expressing fear, anger, concern for their city,” he said. “We get it.”
Hernandez said it’s possible for the city to quickly rent space in a warehouse by John Wayne Airport and convert it into a shelter.
“That’s what the people here want to know,” she told task force member John Heffernan, a former Newport mayor. “Not a 10-year study, blah blah blah. We want to know, what are you going to do today?”