By: Tim Houchen
April 2, 2019 —
“Efforts to identify potential sites for a homeless shelter in San Clemente are stirring local passions – churches eager to help and prospective neighbors worried about economic fallout and trespassers roaming the area.”
Nearly five years have passed since this article was written, but not much has changed as far as the attitudes of local residents and business owners in San Clemente towards persons experiencing homelessness there.
Surprisingly enough, the title of the March 20, 2014 article is, “San Clemente wrestles with question of homeless shelter sites.”
This question still remains true today despite the passing of time and the onset of litigation filed against the city for its unwillingness to provide plans for a local homeless shelter and because of its mistreatment of homeless persons there.
Going back to 2014, San Clemente was one of three Orange County cities that had failed to comply with state law SB 2.
Senate Bill 2 (SB 2) is a state law effective January 1, 2008, that requires all cities and counties to designate at least one zone where emergency homeless shelters are allowed by right, that is, as a permitted use without requiring any discretionary approval or any conditional use permit. The law does not say that a city or county must create a homeless shelter.
While the Orange County Board of Supervisors struggled to find a location for the county’s first year-round emergency homeless shelter in 2014, the focus at that time was in the north area of the county. Fullerton, Anaheim and Santa Ana each failed in succession to establish locations for shelters because of the NIMBY opposition, but each of these cities had established SB 2 zones prior without much dissent from residents at all.
In contrast, San Clemente residents were sharply opposed to the very idea that homeless shelters could exist at all in the city. It is not believed that there was much pressure on San Clemente to provide shelters for the nearly 70 homeless persons that had been identified as living there at that time. It was more of a case of the state wanting to bring “reprobate” cities like San Clemente into compliance with SB 2.
If San Clemente had just pointed to a map and said, “yes”, the city could have saved itself from a whole lot of trouble, but the residents just could not even agree on any location for a prospective shelter. Truth be told, most residents never even considered compliance as an option. Not even the slightest amount of effort would be demonstrated that could have provided the city respite from the long arm of the state law which threatened and then eventually revoked the sovereignty of San Clemente’s most-prized commercial zones.
The Planning Commission went through extensive analysis of potential shelter sites. After three community meetings and five public hearings there were still residents vehemently opposed to every single location including a location in the Rancho San Clemente Business Park where it was reported that 50 of the cities 70 homeless inhabitants lived in a nearby canyon area that was thick with brush and at imminent risk to public safety. Residents were concerned of the threat of a wildfire posed by the encampment due to its location.
Over the next couple of years law enforcement began pushing homeless persons from the canyon encampment out of that area due to the many complaints of residents and business owners in the area. When homeless persons were displaced from a place where they were once invisible, they had nowhere else to go, but many did choose more visible locations along the El Camino Real business corridor and places like North Beach.
The Planning Commission did eventually forward recommendations for the SB 2 zones and in August of 2014 the City Council adopted the final ordinance. A coalition of groups that formed during the debate over where shelters would be permitted, filed a lawsuit in December of 2014 calling the ordinance a “cruel joke.” The Emergency Shelter Coalition filed a motion in court claiming that the ordinance violated the city’s own housing element.
An Orange County Superior Court Judge struck down the ordinance and ordered the city to pass another one because the adopted ordinance made it nearly impossible to establish a homeless shelter in San Clemente.
San Clemente finally approved a new shelter plan after a second reading of the ordinance before City Council in November 2016, but the city failed to comply with court orders to update its housing element. In January 2017, the Emergency Shelter Coalition filed a motion calling on the court to enforce the mandate that San Clemente had violated.
The Superior Court Judge presiding over the case placed an injunction on the city’s right to issue building permits in some of the most valuable commercial areas of San Clemente including North Beach.
The historic Miramar Theater and Bowling Alley in North Beach are city landmarks that occupy the 1700 block of North El Camino Real. The city and developers have made numerous attempts to restore the properties without success over the years since closing nearly three decades ago.
The city’s plan was to re-purpose the buildings as an event center with restaurants making North Beach the hub of entertainment in San Clemente as originally intended by the town’s founder Ole Hanson.
The city received grant money to hire a design firm with expertise in saving old movie houses and the City Council approved a waiver regarding parking requirements for the area in 2017 making way for the historic renovation in North Beach, but there was a problem.
The revitalization of North Beach had to be put on hold because the area was still restricted under the terms of the injunction imposed by the presiding judge in the lawsuit that challenged San Clemente’s zoning for homeless shelters.
Meanwhile, the last of fifty, or so, homeless inhabitants were being displaced from a brush covered homeless encampment in a canyon adjacent to the Rancho San Clemente Business Park. The homeless were continuing their migration down Avenida Pico towards North Beach.
One can easily imagine the frustration of property owners in North Beach as their hopes for revitalizing the neighborhood and the expectations of rising property values of homes and businesses in the area dissipated. These were the results of the dysfunctional manner that San Clemente addressed, or dare say, failed to address the homeless problem there.
Today, the properties that San Clemente had intended to restore stand vacant, boarded-up and in severe disrepair as they have for many years. The buildings that were once bound to be listed in the National Registry of Historic Places are now in danger of being demolished in the near future.
Nearby, tents line a sidewalk at the North Beach Metrolink Station and homeless persons brave enough to live there risk being harassed and threatened by angry residents as they drive through the train station shouting obscenities at the homeless there. Others stalk the homeless and take pictures and videos of them for social media posts.
Violent attacks on homeless persons at North Beach have been reported by both, people with and without homes. On at least one occasion, a firebomb was launched from a passing vehicle in the direction of homeless persons and their tents.
Construction barricades and yellow “caution” tape outline a grassy hill that cascades downward from the fortress-like Ole Hanson Beach Club. No trespassing signs forbid entry to the area that was once favored by homeless persons as a nice and comfortable place to sit or perhaps take a nap.
This area located at North Beach has now become a “conflict zone” for the homeless and local residents as each compete for the rightful use of the high-quality public space there. The residents feel a sense of entitlement based on economic status and a belief that the prized public space is to their benefit, bought and paid for in sweat equity and property taxes. The homeless are drawn into conflict because they have nowhere else to go.
This is what happens when persons experiencing homelessness are displaced from one place to another without providing them with a place where they are allowed to exist. Cities and counties often push homeless persons into these conflict zones.
For example, the County of Orange pushed the inhabitants of a homeless encampment located on the east bank of the Santa Ana River to the west bank in 2017. The move placed the encampment on the Santa Ana River Trail and in direct conflict with residents who considered the trail a “recreational jewel.”
Once again the homeless were pushed out entirely from the Santa Ana Riverbed by the county and into the streets of Anaheim in 2018. This action resulted in the creation of numerous smaller conflict zones located throughout the City of Anaheim.
In the case of San Clemente, approximately 50 of 70 persons known to be homeless in the city were encamped in a canyon area near the Rancho San Clemente Business Park before they were forced out of that area. Should there be any question that this action contributed to the growing number of homeless persons at North Beach?
In both instances the County of Orange and San Clemente were sued for enforcement of anti-camping ordinances without providing sufficient shelter space. The by-product of such litigation is the revocation of authority to enforce ordinances that prohibit “camping.”
San Clemente still feels as if it has not done anything wrong and takes exception to being regulated by a judge from all of the way up in Santa Ana and greater exception to lawmakers even further away in Sacramento.
The city is so frustrated with homelessness and not being able to do as it pleases regarding the homeless issue, that it has resorted to the dirtiest and most despicable tactics to rid North Beach of its homeless population, vigilantism.
Early reports of mistreatment coming from homeless persons living in North Beach were taken at half-measure, but San Clemente’s own citizens have verified that vigilante acts have indeed been carried out against homeless persons at North Beach.
At the March 19, 2019 San Clemente City Council meeting David Thompson, a North Beach resident, said this during public comments. “I’m sympathetic to both sides, but the vigilantism, the harassing of people, following people for hours at a time taking photos, stalking people, driving them nuts. To me that’s going too far.”
An editorial published in the San Clemente Times on March 28, 2019 had this to say. “We have read with horror the threats of violence against homeless on social media. We are dismayed to hear music blared 24 hours a day at the Ole Hanson lawn area in an effort to drive off the homeless encamped there. The area has now been cleared and all bushes in the area removed. This is not how we would expect our citizens and leaders to behave, especially given the failure to provide alternative facilities for the homeless…”
Reports on the mistreatment and threats made towards homeless persons at North Beach have been documented and handed over to attorneys in the case against San Clemente and four other South Orange County cities.
As of April 2, 2019, The five South Orange County cities named in the Orange County Catholic Worker lawsuit have not yet been served so they will not be ordered to court on Tuesday, but according to sources, those subpoenas are imminent and will be forthcoming in a matter of days.