SANTA ANA — The tent city that had formed during the past year in the shadows of Orange County's government complex was all but dismantled Saturday.
Facing possible eviction this week under the city's new anti-camping ordinance, homeless people assisted by dozens of volunteers on Saturday took down their tents--some made of plastic and plywood--and prepared to leave.
While many said they had no place to go, others stacked their personal belongings and said they would defy the ordinance.
"It's been home for almost a year," said Carl Carter, 44, as he watched two volunteers pull apart poles that supported his tent. Ailing from a congenital heart defect, the former carnival worker said he will enter the hospital within the next few days. And after that? Carter simply shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
Heeding the advice from legal advocates that the city may have the right to ban tents but not sleeping bags and backpacks, the homeless started throwing away their few extra belongings.
Volunteers picked up trash, collected about two dozen shopping carts and distributed food through the Civic Center cleanup program coordinated by Operation Fresh Start. The group of citizens, church members and business owners organized hastily last spring and urged the council to delay enforcement of the law. They had hoped to buy time for fund raising and to find shelter and rehabilitation programs for those who wanted the assistance.
Of the 276 who were identified as Civic Center residents, 90 were taken to shelters and 26 were given one-way bus tickets out of town to rejoin their families. The bus fares came from proceeds raised by Operation Fresh Start. Volunteers said one homeless man's ticket is being purchased for a trip home to Bolivia.
Through Saturday, the group had raised $16,000, with $10,000 donated by the Orange County Bar Assn. Lawyers also registered some for welfare benefits, and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster funded the purchase of about 30 duffel bags for the homeless.
But despite generous donations--organizers reported a $100 contribution from Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters--the need was far greater than the resources available.
"I really don't think we will be able to move you today," volunteer Jeri White told Bill Turner, 45, who has been homeless for three months. For some of that time, Turner has been camping in the Civic Center. "We already have 300 names on the (shelter) list ahead of you. I would rather give you bad news than give you false hope."
Jim Miller, head of Shelter for the Homeless, estimated another $2,000 would be needed to buy bus tickets for all who wanted them.
Whether the ordinance will actually be enforced after Wednesday remains in doubt. City officials have discussed taking a low-key approach because citations cannot be issued nor arrests made until a temporary city jail is completed in the fall.
But the ordinance also faces a serious challenge from the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and the American Civil Liberties Union, which plan to announce on Wednesday the first regionwide legal strategy aimed at protecting rights of the homeless.
Joining forces with other public law groups, the lawyers plan to challenge ordinances like Santa Ana's--banning camping or the storage of personal property on public land--that have been approved in Fullerton, Orange, Long Beach and Santa Barbara.
Legal Aid attorney Harry Simon said the ordinances, which he sees as part of a nationwide trend aimed at removing the homeless from city streets, must be challenged in court because strict enforcement could take away basic rights from the homeless, such as sleeping.
"The level of tolerance (of the homeless) seems to be wearing thin," Simon said recently. "It's a demonstration there are more homeless and fewer and fewer solutions."
It was that increasing intolerance that led to Santa Ana's approval of the new law. Employees in the government complex complained of being harassed and accosted by panhandlers, or of having their cars vandalized.
"We have been concerned as to whether (the presence of the homeless) would impair our ability to get jurors down here," Presiding Superior Court Judge Donald E. Smallwood said Saturday as he watched the cleanup effort.
But as the volunteers milled through the few remaining tents of the homeless, they listened to stories from the people who call the Civic Center "home."
Superior Court Judge Francisco Firmat said Saturday he helped a Cuban man who had let his Immigration and Naturalization Service certificate expire. The expiration caused the immigrant to lose his welfare benefits, and ultimately his apartment because he had no money for rent. On the spot, Firmat said, the man received a check from the volunteers payable to the INS to reinstate his legal status and once again qualify for other benefits. The problem "snowballed and it just got bigger and bigger," Firmat said. "He's been sleeping out here for six months."
Turner, the homeless man who was told he would have a long wait for help, said he probably would keep moving from one city to another until he finds a job. He said he is better off on the streets than moving in with a brother who has a drug addiction. "That's not good for me, so I stay away from him."
Diane Gordon, 41, showed a volunteer a nursing certificate in hopes of finding shelter. Without an address, she said, it is difficult to look for work.
"I am still qualified," she said. "I am homeless. I don't have anywhere to clean up. Take me to your house and I will have a job next week."