Advocates: Cities passing rules targeting homeless
COSTA MESA, Calif. Army veteran Don Matyja was getting by alright on the streets of this city tucked in Southern California suburbia until he got ticketed for smoking in the park. Matyja, who has been homeless since he was evicted nearly two years ago, had trouble paying the fine and getting to court — and now a $25 penalty has ballooned to $600.
The ticket is just one of myriad new challenges facing Matyja and others living on the streets in Orange County, where a number of cities have recently passed ordinances that ban everything from smoking in the park to sleeping in cars to leaning bikes against trees in a region better known for its beaches than its 30,000 homeless people.
Cities have long struggled with how to deal with the homeless, but the new ordinances here echo what homeless advocates say is a rash of regulations nationwide as municipalities grapple with how to address those living on their streets within the constraints of ever-tightening budgets. The rules may go unnoticed by most, but the homeless say they are a thinly veiled attempt to push them out of one city and into another by criminalizing the daily activities they cannot avoid.
There’s been a sharp uptick in the past year in the number of cities passing ordinances against doing things on public property such as sitting, lying down, sleeping, standing in a public street, loitering, public urination, jaywalking and panhandling, said Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“It definitely is more pervasive and it is more adversarial. I think in the past we found examples of it but it’s not simply just growing, but it’s growing in its severity and in its targeted approach to America’s un-housed,” said Donovan, who compared it to a civil rights issue.
“There’s the whole notion of driving while black. Well, this is sitting while homeless.”
Denver earlier this year voted to make urban camping illegal despite protests from homeless activists. Philadelphia banned feedings in public parks in June but the ordinance was put on hold the following month after homeless groups sued the city. And there’s a new curfew for pets that help their owners beg on the Las Vegas Strip.
Matyja, in Costa Mesa, has gotten multiple tickets for smoking in the park where he camps out since the law took effect earlier this year.
“When I was in the military, I’m golden. When I was working, I was golden. When I’m not working and I’m out here, I’m a piece of garbage as far as these people are concerned,” said Matyja, 50, as he walked past a row of neatly manicured lawns on a sweltering day. “They figure if they don’t see you, then the problem don’t exist and then they can say, ‘We don’t have a homeless problem.’”
The Newport Beach Public Library, nestled in a coastal city better known for its surfing and miles of wide beaches, recently updated a policy that says staff can evict someone for having poor hygiene or a strong aroma. The policy also bans lounging on library furniture and creates strict limits about parking shopping carts, bikes and “other wheeled conveyances” outside the premises.
Library Services Director Cynthia Cowell insists the policy isn’t aimed at the homeless, but the action has nonetheless stirred anger among homeless advocates.
“They become very clever about it and try to blanket it because they say “strong aroma” could be perfume also, but in the end it’s an attempt to keep people out of where the neighborhood and community folks feel uncomfortable,” said Scott Mather, director of Haven, a program for Orange County’s chronically homeless.
Some cities have seen a legal backlash as homeless advocacy groups sue. Last week, the homeless in Sacramento got checks ranging from $400 to $750 apiece to settle a class-action lawsuit brought after police destroyed property seized during cleanup operations. In a similar case, a federal appeals court ruled last month that the city of Los Angeles cannot seize property left temporarily unattended on sidewalks by homeless residents.
For cities struggling with large homeless populations, the solution involves walking a tightrope between complaints from the voting public and the possibility of a lawsuit.
In Costa Mesa, a city of about 110,000 tucked between south Orange County’s famous beaches and the tourist mecca of Disneyland, officials have been trying to figure out what to do about a homeless population of about 1,200 people, including up to 120 chronically homeless with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues.
Residents routinely complain about the homeless in Lions Park, a large green space in the city’s downtown that is home to the library, a recreation center and a community swimming pool. The city has received calls about people masturbating and urinating outside the library’s windows, taking baths in the park’s fountain and leering at children who attend classes at the rec center, said Rick Francis, the city’s assistant chief executive officer.
On a recent day, dozens of homeless individuals lounged in the park on blankets or sat near bikes piled high with plastic bags, bedrolls, sleeping bags and, in one instance, a full-sized suitcase that dangled from the handlebars. A man who appeared to be intoxicated panhandled outside the library, asking passersby for cigarettes.
Another man listening to a portable radio said he’d been released from prison earlier in the week and had nowhere else to go.
“We get a lot of complaints from residents who feel like, ‘Hey, here’s a municipal resource that we’re fearful to even use because we don’t want our kids playing in a park where they have to step over homeless people and all their possessions,’” Francis said.
“Look, we’re not asking all you guys to leave but we want to be able to come to the park and enjoy it without the blight of stacks and stacks and stacks of property laying around, without the issues of human waste being scattered about, those types of things.”
Costa Mesa formed a homeless task force last spring and came up with a “carrot and stick approach,” said Muriel Ullman, the city’s housing consultant.
The city hopes to build more affordable housing using federal grant money and county resources and has hired a mental health worker to connect with the chronically homeless. It has also partnered with local churches to set up a storage facility where the homeless can keep their belongings to avoid having them confiscated, Ullman said.
But Costa Mesa has also passed a slate of new ordinances, including bans on parking a bike anywhere but on a city bike rack, smoking in the park and sleeping in the park after dark, she said. The city also spent $60,000 to tear down a gazebo that attracted large numbers of homeless people, asked churches to stop soup kitchens there and hired two rangers to patrol the park.
The mayor last week stoked anger by calling soup kitchens nuisances and asking the city to investigate some decades-old charities there.
Critics say that Costa Mesa is “just trying to get rid of our homeless, but what we’re trying to do is help those who want help and if somebody doesn’t want help — and they have refused help on numerous occasions — we want the courts to deal with them,” Ullman said.
Homeless advocates who have watched the ordinances roll out in Costa Mesa and other, neighboring, cities aren’t so sure.
The high cost of living in Orange County, coupled with a severe shortage of affordable housing and lack of shelter space, make it impossible for many homeless people to get back on their feet, said Bob Murphy, general manager of the local nonprofit American Family Housing. Most wind up migrating from city to city to avoid trouble, he said.
In Costa Mesa, a recent city report found a shortage of more than 1,000 transitional shelter beds for the city’s population alone.
“These are people. It’s not like you can go out with a dog catcher and scoop them up and put them somewhere else,” Murphy said. “They have no place to go.”