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Advocates: Cities passing rules targeting homeless

Associated Press Modified: October 8, 2012 at 3:05 am •  Published: October 8, 2012
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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."