By R. Nicanor Santana
The homeless sought shade under trees and buildings as the humid October sun beat down on them. City officials and federal employees in business suits and crowds of children in school uniforms passed them by, weaving through their personal belongings, scattered along the Walk of Honor and Civic Center Plaza in Downtown Santa Ana.
They’re there, but not there.
“There’s no place for the homeless to go, unless you want them in the riverbeds behind your businesses or in your backyards,” said Larry “Smitty” Smith. “As far as places to go or shelters for the night, there are none.”
Smitty is a member and spokesperson of the Civic Center Roundtable, an advocacy group founded by two community members, and staffed by homeless.
More than 4,500 homeless live in Orange County, up five percent from five years ago. The largest number, or about 1,500, live in Santa Ana, according to the Orange County Commission to End Homelessness.
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributed $19.5 million in grants to county agencies and nonprofit organizations. Since 1996, the agency has allocated $206 million. Most of that has gone to nonprofit organizations serving Santa Ana’s homeless.
“Food and clothing are not the only needs the homeless face,” Civic Center Roundtable founder Massino Marini said.
SLIDESHOW: SANTA ANA’S HOMELESS FIND SHELTER IN CIVIC CENTER
The Roundtable meets every Friday at 3:30 p.m. to hear concerns and gather information from the homeless community.
They document the confiscation of unattended items and the daily confrontations with police and city officials. Based on that information, they craft proposals that are then discussed with city and county officials.
Aside from lobbying the city to build a permanent homeless shelter, the Roundtable is fighting the police department’s policy of searching and taking belongings, as well as handing out $500 camping ordinance tickets. Such policies, Roundtable members say, lead to criminalizing, instead of helping, the homeless.
“Some people are severely mentally ill and need medicine. People are not getting all their stuff back,” Smitty said.
He said he joined the Roundtable last year after police targeted and seized donations from church congregations and nonprofits.
In a video taken by a member of the Roundtable, a tractor is seen picking up belongings and dumping them into a large city-owned truck. Such items are trashed or auctioned if they are not redeemed within 90 days.
“It’s a much larger problem than just a police problem; it’s a societal issue. The expectation is that police officers will be experts in mental illness and social work and all kinds of different areas, but that’s not the reality of it,” Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas said.
Last November, the Roundtable’s efforts to get the city to open a 24-hour shelter failed after residents rejected the idea. Along with the Commission to End Homelessness, the group is working on a proposal for a check-in center with job referral services, property storage, showers and restrooms.
“We do consider [the Roundtable] as having a seat at the table as our residents. A year-round shelter is a long term solution,” said Santa Ana Communications Director Alma Flores. “We looked at a few models and we want to be sensitive to our residents. Santa Ana is a very dense community.”
As other cities adopt more severe measures, Santa Ana has become a hub for Orange County’s homeless. Fullerton and Costa Mesa, for example, evicted their homeless during the summer months.
“Costa Mesa doesn’t just run you out of the park, they run you out of the city,” Smitty said.
The Orange County chapter of the ACLU has intervened on behalf of the homeless, sending Eve Garrow to defend their civil and human rights.
“It is vitally important that the voices of the people experiencing homelessness are part of the policy debate,” said Garrow.
Finding a location for a shelter has remained a major hurdle for the city.
“No one has found a site. The federal government hasn’t found a site; the city doesn’t have a site. It’s easy to say put it over there. We need to find a site. We have the money available,” city manager David Cabazos said.
Until then, the homeless seek shelter under the shade of trees and buildings.
“Santa Ana College students should get involved, be engaged and look at creative ways to help the homeless and come together. You guys are the young millennials that know how to advocate,” councilmember Michelle Martinez said.