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Newport police to restrict overnight access to bus station where homeless congregate

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Tents inhabited by homeless people occupy parts of the Newport Beach transit center on Avocado Avenue on Tuesday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer )

The Orange County Transportation Authority has given Newport Beach police the go-ahead to remove people from the agency’s Avocado Avenue bus station after hours, potentially a de facto eviction of the cluster of tents that has become a flash point for Newport’s burgeoning homelessness issue.

Only OCTA employees or contractors are to be allowed at the station from 11:15 p.m. to 5 a.m., when buses aren’t running. Anyone else — namely, the homeless who bed down under the shade structures or in the wooded landscaping — is subject to arrest. The trespassing enforcement order runs through Aug. 27, 2020.

“OCTA has experienced various negative secondary effects associated with individuals who remain on the property after its posted hours,” OCTA Chief Executive Darrell Johnson wrote in a letter to the city. “These effects include storage of trash and debris, public urination and defection, and active interference with OCTA’s personnel and/or contractors who are attempting to perform maintenance at the property.”

Though trespassing enforcement will apply after hours, “if people are using the transportation center during operating hours for activities unrelated to its intended purpose, that will be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” said OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter. “One consideration will be whether the activity is interfering with OCTA’s use of the center for bus operations.”

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A half-dozen to a dozen tents usually dot the unfenced transit center, with many of them up all day. About 700 passengers a day pass through the station, which is a stop for several routes that traverse the county.

OCTA also is planning a perimeter fence with a locking gate to enclose the depot when buses aren’t running, further preventing overnight stays.

Social services workers visit the station to provide outreach, and police have stepped up their patrols of the area.

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A tent is set up under a shade structure at the Newport Beach bus station on Avocado Avenue. OCTA has given Newport police the go-ahead to enforce against trespassing when buses aren't running.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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A person is considered trespassing if he or she does not comply with a request from a property owner or representative to leave. Police can step in to remove the person, with or without arrest. The violation is a misdemeanor.

No-trespassing signs are posted at the station. More signs listing the specific hours of closure and the relevant state penal code are to come, Carpenter said.

Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said the after-hours trespassing enforcement is not enforcement of anti-camping laws, which have been suspended in Newport and other cities around the West since a 2018 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals restricted cities from prosecuting people for sleeping on public property if no shelter beds are available. Anti-camping rules apply to open, easily accessible public spaces such as sidewalks, he said.

Newport Beach doesn’t have a homeless shelter, but city officials are looking into leasing space at an Avis car rental lot at 4200 Campus Drive near John Wayne Airport for a temporary facility. Staff also is exploring the possibility of converting part of a city-owned maintenance yard at 592 Superior Ave.

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Homeless people have set up tents in the wooded landscaping around the Newport Beach transit center on Avocado Avenue.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A recent incident at the bus station resulted in the arrest of a man on suspicion of arson.

Just after midnight Sept. 1, a police officer responded to a report of a man lighting paper on fire and throwing it into the air, allegedly with the intent of igniting nearby tents and debris, police said.

It was unclear whether the suspect, Thomas McGregor, 46, of Mission Viejo, was staying in the camp at the station.

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Carpenter said OCTA pressure-washes the grounds nightly, cleans the restrooms three times a day and is planning fresh paint, seating and trash cans. It also is working with the Irvine Co. on updating the landscaping on the slope.

The Irvine Co. previously owned the land but sold it to OCTA in the 1990s. However, a condition of the sale was that the agency continue to ask the company for land-use approvals, such as for landscaping.

Daily Pilot staff writer Julia Sclafani contributed to this report.

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Updates:
5:32 PM, Sep. 12, 2019: This article was originally published at 5:25 p.m. Sept. 11 and has been updated with additional information.

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