SANTA ANA — Fighting the city's largely unsuccessful crusade to oust the homeless from the Civic Center, the Legal Aid Society will seek a court order today to stop enforcement of an anti-camping ordinance, a spokesman said.
In a related protest on Monday night, more than 50 demonstrators from Orange County Housing NOW! and the Orange County Catholic Worker Community denounced the ordinance in front of the Civic Center during a City Council meeting.
Legal Aid attorney Harry Simon said he will ask Orange County Superior Court Judge James Smith this afternoon to order the city to stop enforcing its camping ban, adopted in August, which has been used to prevent the homeless from camping and storing personal belongings on public property.
Simon said that ban is unconstitutionally vague, punishes people for having no place to live and effectively makes being homeless a crime. Legal Aid filed a lawsuit against the city in September challenging the ordinance. Today's request for a court order is another step in that lawsuit.
"The essential message to the homeless is, 'Get out of town,' (but) the city has no more right to tell homeless people that than they have to tell any member of society," he said. "We're not saying that the city has to allow the homeless to do anything they want on public land, but they have a right to exist in our society. The city has the right to maintain its land, but they have to balance that with the right of homeless to exist."
However, City Atty. Ed Cooper said that the ordinance is similar to ones which have withstood legal challenges as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. Under the ordinance, no one is permitted to use "camping" gear such as sleeping bags, tents and blankets or store personal items on public property. The law does not bar sleeping on public property, however.
"It doesn't make homelessness a crime. It makes camping, whether you're homeless or not homeless, a crime on public property. We believe that ordinance is constitutional and will pass muster in the courts," he said.
Many residents and city employees have credited the ordinance with cleaning up the Civic Center, which at one time included a shantytown of makeshift huts and tents. When the law went into effect last summer, about 275 homeless people were living in the area.
City officials have tried for years to oust the homeless from the Civic Center area, citing unsanitary and unsafe conditions, vandalism and harassment of employees. When existing laws failed, the City Council turned to the anti-camping ordinance.
On Monday afternoon, Legal Aid spokesman Jere Witter said the lawsuit is an important battle in the homeless residents' "seemingly everlasting war with the city of Santa Ana--or its war on them. We've got homeless here and they can't be eradicated and that's almost what the city has been trying to do over the past couple years and that just can't be permitted."
Carrying signs that said, "Use a Blanket, Go to Jail," and "Being Homeless Is Not a Crime," about 50 protesters held the vigil in a Civic Center courtyard.
Tim Carpenter, spokesman for Housing NOW!, called upon the City Council to end the camping ban and find a "more humane" way of dealing with the homeless.
"We are concerned that the ordinance is being used now as a harassment tool," Carpenter said. "People are being ticketed for just having blankets with them."
Carpenter said that the city has spent more than $500,000 on legal battles to remove the homeless and said the money could be better spent on shelters and affordable housing.
In a prepared statement to be read at Monday's council meeting, Carpenter asked the council to create a task force, made up of residents, homeless people and city officials to look for solutions to homelessness.
Carpenter said: "It is time to begin to address the causes of homelessness rather than paying attorneys' bills."