Homeless In San Clemente? The City Has A Campsite For You

Tents have sprung up in recent months in the parking lot of the Metrolink station near North Beach in San Clemente. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

City officials in San Clemente think they've found a solution to the growing homeless encampments in the area that have residents fuming: a designated campsite.

The San Clemente City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to allow people experiencing homelessness to camp on a city-owned lot. The lot is on E. Avenida Pico, about a half mile inland from North Beach.

Officials hope to move people to the lot from an encampment at the train station in North Beach. Some 20 to 30 people have been camped illegally around the station for several months.

The growing encampment there has raised the ire of San Clemente residents, who say the area is becoming unsafe and unsightly. Around 200 people came to the City Council meeting on Tuesday evening, many of them to air their grievances about street homelessness and to urge council members to find a solution.

The crowd erupted in cheers when the council passed an urgency ordinance designating the city-owned lot as the town's official homeless camp. The camp is intended to be temporary while the city explores options for opening an indoor shelter.

Officials hope the move will allow them to enforce anti-camping regulations in the rest of the city.

San Clemente plans to set up a sanctioned camp for homeless people on a city-owned maintenance yard next to a water treatment plant. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

Mayor Pro Tem Dan Bane told KPCC the camp would have portable bathrooms and possibly showers. The site would also be fenced and have security.

"The general idea is to confine it to an area that's not only a place that's safe for the residents, but also safe for the homeless," Bane said.

The approach is unique in Orange County, although some California cities, including San Diego and Santa Cruz, have opened sanctioned tent camps in recent years. San Diego's camp was run by a non-profit organization and residents there stayed in camp-issued tents. The camp closed after just two months — residents who hadn't been housed were relocated to an indoor shelter.

Santa Cruz recently opened its second iteration of a sanctioned tent camp, this time run by the Salvation Army. Residents of the camp are subject to rules, including when and how they can enter and exit the property.

Other cities in the U.S., notably Seattle, have also experimented with sanctioned tent camps, with mixed reviews and debated results.

It's still unclear who, exactly, will manage the camp in San Clemente and what kind of restrictions will be placed on people wishing to stay there.

But San Clemente resident Michelle Brooks said she hoped it would be a first step to getting homeless people off city streets.

"I think right now it's a public safety issue where they're defecating on the sidewalks and it's unsafe for children to be around," Brooks said.

Still, Brooks said she's concerned that some people currently sleeping near the train station will refuse to go to the city-sanctioned camp and that law enforcement will be unable to force them to move.

A recent federal court ruling found that people experiencing homelessness have a right to sleep in public places, if there's no available shelter. San Clemente faces a federal lawsuit filed locally by advocates for the homeless over the city's failure to provide shelter.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in that lawsuit object to the city's decision to designate an official homeless campsite. They penned a letter to city leaders Wednesday casting doubt on the city's ability to enforce anti-camping laws without having indoor shelter to offer.

They threatened to sue the city if anti-camping laws are enforced against people who choose not to move to the city-sanctioned lot.

The lawyers also said forcing people to sleep at the empty lot with no shade was cruel.

"The City's plan replicates the inhumane camps now holding refugees and asylum speakers along the southern border of the United States. Unsheltered individuals are not criminals."

The Emergency Shelter Coalition, one of the plaintiffs, has repeatedly criticized the city for failing to facilitate the opening of an emergency homeless shelter. The group won a prior lawsuit against the city over the issue in 2016.

City staff presented a report at the Tuesday meeting on its recent efforts to open an emergency shelter. Staff said there was no viable location in the city's state-mandated shelter zone, and recommended that the city work with the county and neighboring cities to find a regional solution.

The 2019 Point-In-Time tally of homeless people in Orange County found 96 people living on the streets in San Clemente.