City council takes preliminary actions to address homelessness in Orange

By Andie King

Responding to citizens' demands for an open, agendized discussion on the homeless in Orange, the city council convened a special meeting Sept. 26.  The chambers were packed with some 130 residents, many of whom voiced their appreciation that the issue was being openly addressed after six years of silence. 

Silence, not inactivity. While Anaheim recently brought the issue to the fore with a declared “state of emergency,” Orange has been quietly working with the homeless population for years.

Chief of Police Tom Kisela described the city’s ever-expanding role in dealing with the homeless issue since the 1990s. Two decades ago, there was only a handful camping on the riverbed, but even then, Orange had a so-called “Hobo Cop” to work with them. In 2000, an OPD bike team worked with 15-40 “urban campers” on the riverbed. The numbers exploded in 2013, following the passage of AB-109, which released non-violent, non-sex offenders from jail. Prop 47 further augmented the numbers by reducing possession of illegal drugs (heroin, cocaine) to misdemeanors, pushing an opportunity for rehab therapy as an alternative sentence off the table. 

Kisela categorized the homeless into four groups: those who are mentally ill; those who simply want to live outside of society; the criminally homeless, with substance abuse or criminal records, fleeing custody; and those suffering economic hardships, who may be working several jobs, but cannot afford to pay rent. Outreach is most successful in helping the latter category, particularly families who have migrated from other states and not found jobs that can support housing,

He further differentiated between those 65 to 70 homeless who migrate through the city, and those living on the riverbed in  approximately 619 encampments, of which some include multiple tents. 

The riverbed is owned by the county. A decades-old Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the county and city gives OPD authority to police the area, but provides no funding. When calls were minimal, the time and manpower was negligible. Now, however, a five-man bike team is permanently assigned, HEART (Homeless, Engagement, Assistant & Resource Team) is employed, and numerous calls clog the system daily.

After hearing Kisela’s report, the council voted to hire two more police officers and spend an additional $40,000 for a private security firm to increase after hours park patrols.  The firm is already patrolling for the city, but it is not currently budgeted to cover all parks.

Vocal victims needed
City attorney Wayne Winthers will bring an Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance proposal to the next council meeting.  “It’s not illegal for a homeless person to ask you for a dollar,” he said, “but if they push you or grab you or corner you, that’s aggressive solicitation.” He further encouraged businesses, landowners and citizens who have suffered physical or financial injury by a homeless person to sign victim complaints, and be willing to testify and cooperate with the prosecution.

The council also formed three ad hoc committees to work with other agencies.  Fred Whitaker and Mark Murphy will work with the county to update the OPD MOU and seek reimbursement for costs associated with the homeless issue. Tita Smith and Kim Nichols will explore a multi-city coalition; and Mike Alvarez will work with city staff to provide community updates.

What is not yet being openly discussed is the county’s interest in property within Orange’s city limits to provide temporary housing for the homeless. Mike Alvarez reported that he had been invited to visit, with Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Anaheim Councilmember Kris Murray and others, the former Santiago Canyon College building on Batavia. The SCC facility was closed in 2012 amid safety code violations, but the county is apparently looking at it as a “triage center” to help divert individuals to shelters, rehab or medical programs.  The county is reportedly also considering the Fountain Valley School District building in Orange. The properties have been discussed by the Board of Supervisors in closed session, but no information has been released to the public.