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Costa Mesa revises anti-camping laws ahead of Lighthouse shelter opening

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A Costa Mesa code enforcement officer speaks with a woman sleeping in a vehicle in Costa Mesa. The City Council approved revisions Tuesday aimed at clarifying certain aspects of the local prohibitions against sleeping in vehicles and camping on public property.
(File Photo)

Costa Mesa City Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to tweak local rules prohibiting sleeping in motor vehicles and camping on public property.

The changes are aimed at ensuring that the city’s anti-camping laws are not only enforceable in the long term, but work in conjunction with the temporary 50-bed homeless shelter scheduled to open Friday at Lighthouse Church of the Nazarene on the Westside.

Costa Mesa Police Lt. Paul Beckman said the revisions will “help us to better move forward with complementing how the bridge shelter is to encourage those experiencing homelessness to receive services, as well as … help discourage those who are more resistant to those services.”

The council-approved changes include expanding Costa Mesa’s definition of camp paraphernalia to cover items such as bedding, kitchen utensils, extra clothing and shopping carts — and making clear that using or storing such items “is prohibited if done for purposes of living accommodation or habituation,” according to a staff report.

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The new language also stipulates that it is illegal to live in a vehicle, aside from a camper or something similar in authorized areas, and prohibits sleeping in vehicles parked anywhere in Costa Mesa — except for private residential property — between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Previously, the municipal code stated that it is “unlawful for any person to sleep in or on any motor vehicle parked any place in the city at any time” — a prohibition city staff characterized as overly broad.

Costa Mesa’s anti-camping laws have been effectively on ice for about a year as a result of a federal lawsuit filed in January 2018 on behalf of homeless people cleared from a former encampment along the Santa Ana River and a later ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that it is unconstitutional to prosecute homeless people for sleeping on public property when they don’t have access to shelter.

As a result, the city has been unable to disperse encampments that have sprung up in parks and other public spaces during this period.

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Beckman said those who are homeless “have collected more than what they would have done in prior years and I think it’s a result of our inability to use our enforcement options to discourage it.”

“When you don’t have to move, you tend to collect stuff — I’m sure all of our garages are reflective of that,” he said. “So, as a result, we’ve seen these encampments grow.”

The city officially settled the riverbed lawsuit on March 4 and has moved quickly in recent months to develop the shelter at the Lighthouse Church, 1885 Anaheim Ave. The plan is for that facility to operate for roughly a year before moving to a longer-term location somewhere else in the city.

Mayor Pro Tem John Stephens characterized the revisions approved this week as “a step in the right direction,” while Councilwoman Andrea Marr said “this is timely and, I think, appropriate given what we’re dealing with.”

Councilwoman Sandy Genis said that it’s somewhat dejecting that the kind of anti-camping laws once aimed at discouraging tourists or teenagers from staying too long in parks or on beaches are now geared primarily at dealing with issues related to the local homeless population.

“It’s kind of a sad statement on how things have changed,” she said. “I would love to see that we could somehow get our arms around this overall homeless crisis.”


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