City Life: An honest look at Costa Mesa’s homeless problem

Parents, the next time a mother tells you she would not take her child to play in Lions Park, you are telling her the truth if you reply, “Your kid is far more likely to be hurt by someone you know than a homeless stranger at Lions Park.”

But as reported in the Daily Pilot, on June 8, David Banks, 42, was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a 3-year-old child at Lions Park. Banks was charged with felony child cruelty, assault and battery, assaulting an officer, felony vandalism to a police unit and obstruction of justice.

Apparently, Banks threw a ball at the child hard enough to leave a mark. Still, let’s make one thing clear: If Banks is guilty, I hope he spends a lot of time in jail.

But don’t let this isolated incident influence you.

That Banks is homeless makes no difference whatsoever. Think about it: Would any of the circumstances change had Banks been an office worker at the park on his lunch hour?

Aside from the recent story, when was the last time you read of a Costa Mesa homeless person arrested for harming a child? We hear of children being harmed every day all over the country, yet there is never a designation of their habitat, except when they are homeless.

I recently resigned as chairman of Costa Mesa’s Homeless Task Force. I am probably one of the few people in America who means it when he says that he is resigning to spend more time with his family.

What I learned while chairman was that there are perceptions about the homeless that have no relation to reality.

My extensive research included field trips to other cities to meet with representatives and learn what they are doing about their homeless. I met with a representative of Long Beach to learn the same thing and conducted phone interviews with representatives from Kings County, Wash., and St. Petersburg, Fla.

I had countless other meetings with city staff, conducted untold hours of Internet research, met with Art Goddard of the Costa Mesa Historical Society, and Susan Sassone, librarian at the downtown branch, to learn about the challenges they face at Lions Park.

I went on police ride-along through the area around Lions Park to learn more about law enforcement’s role, had several meetings with members and leaders of local churches, and made dozens of other trips to Lions Park to see for myself how the homeless have affected the area.

In other cities, I found a severe lack of metrics to determine scientifically whether their homeless management policies were having any effect at all, whether socially, economically or criminally. Most cities put homeless programs in place without any yardsticks or accountability for their success.

I learned that the homeless population in Costa Mesa is far below the national per capita average, though to many it seems like they are everywhere.

At one meeting, I mentioned Costa Mesa’s general population and a recent scientific estimate of the city’s homeless. I was told by the representative of another city, “You don’t have a homeless problem.”

I learned that about 25% of the homeless are veterans, yet too few of them take advantage of resources to get them off the street. Many homeless have mental illnesses, either chronic or brought on by substance abuse. But those mental illnesses do not translate into widespread crimes against the non-homeless.

The perception of homeless crime — the “have-nots” preying on the “haves” — is not in line with the reality.

Police statistics show that almost all homeless crime is against other homeless people. That is hard data that many people don’t like because it diminishes their ability to argue emotionally about how perfect Costa Mesa would be if there were no homeless.

I do not like the presence of the homeless at Lions Park. But in order for the task force to make the best possible recommendations to the city, its members must take the emotion out of their due diligence and rely on solid data, plus the best practices of other cities and what is realistic for Costa Mesa given our budget crisis.

In the meantime, kids are safe at Lions Park. And like anywhere else, even at a park in Newport Beach, they should always be supervised.

STEVE SMITH is a Costa Mesa resident, a freelance writer and a former member of Costa Mesa’s Homeless Task Force.