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The Story of The Mysterious (Pet) Rat Infestation At An Orange County Homeless Encampment

Some of the (pet) rats found at the homeless encampment are now up for adoption: Buzz, Woody, Sid and Zurg. (Art by Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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On May 20, a Facebook user named Eric Anderson took a video of a pack of rats nosing around behind a pillar at the San Clemente Metrolink station, in a homeless encampment.

It's hard to see in the video, but the rats (at least seven of them) are clumped in a corner and appear to be crawling over each other, feasting on trash. The video then pans to the other side of the pillar, where a man, who Anderson describes as homeless, sits next to a trash bin, seemingly unaware of said rats.

We don't know exactly where the rats came from, but they caused quite a stir (as rats tend to do).

Anderson posted the video on a community Facebook page, along with this message:

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"If you see this video and share my concerns that this is a Health and Safety issue and would not want this near your home/children, please attend tomorrow nights City Council meeting and demand some results in cleaning up this deplorable situation."

The "deplorable situation" Anderson was referring to is the encampment. In recent months, several dozen homeless people had set up tents and tarps at the Metrolink station and surrounding North Beach area, causing a panic -- and ultimately, a fierce backlash -- among residents.

San Clemente is a smallish, beach town -- just 65 thousand people. The median home price there is close to a million.

A barrage of responses followed Anderson's post. Some people were grossed out; others were outraged about the public health consequences of the apparent rat infestation.

But some viewed the video with skepticism. The rats looked so ... tame.

One man, Greg Leland said that a woman had brought the rats to the train station in a trash bag. We heard the same story from Jeff Palmer, who holds daily Bible study sessions with San Clemente's homeless.

"I did pest control for 15 years," Palmer said. "I looked at the video and I said, 'those look like store rats.'" One of the rats was white and black, a pattern not usually seen in the wild.

"They were store rats somebody released [so the could say they were] causing an infestation," Palmer said.

The rats appear to be just one of many attempted tactics in San Clemente aimed at either running homeless people out of town, or getting the city to do it.

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On another occasion, advocates for the homeless said, several truck owners pointed their exhaust pipes at a group of tents along the sidewalk and revved their engines in an effort to gas the campers out. (A neighbor told us they were just trying to park.)

Several of the men sleeping at the train station said they had metal washers thrown at them from the window of a moving vehicle. Duane Nichols, a homeless man who is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city, said some kids in a truck once launched fireworks at the encampment.

"Burned a nice hole in my umbrella. The umbrella saved my tent, though," he said, matter-of-factly.

"They hate us so bad. But we're doing this because we don't have a homeless shelter," Nichols said. "That's what this is about."

Duane Nichols shows his artwork in front of his tent at the San Clemente Metrolink station, May 21, 2019. The encampment has since been cleared. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

San Clemente, like every other city in south Orange County except Laguna Beach, has no emergency homeless shelter. But locals say there have always been homeless people.

They used to hide their encampments in the area's ample, open, canyons and hills. But after a series of recent court rulings establishing the rights of homeless people to sleep in public spaces, tents have increasingly been popping up on sidewalks and along beach trails, much to the chagrin of some residents.

The lawsuit in which Nichols (the man who says he was hit by fireworks) is a plaintiff, is likewise based on the premise that people can't be criminalized for sleeping outside if they have no other option. While other Orange County cities have settled the matter by opening emergency shelters, the city of San Clemente has vowed to fight back.

The city recently filed a motion requesting that the judge overseeing the case against it and several neighboring cities recuse himself, alleging that he's biased.

At the May 21 City Council meeting where Anderson had urged people to show up to complain about the rat infestation, council members voted unanimously to designate a city-owned maintenance yard as the one and only place in the city where homeless people can legally camp.

There are portable toilets at the new site, but no drinking water or showers. Despite the lack of services, a few days after the city opened its designated campsite, it was full. Sheriff's deputies are now ticketing anyone who puts up a structure elsewhere on city land.

Meanwhile, city officials say they have looked hard, but can't find anywhere in San Clemente to put up a homeless shelter. A staff report presented at the May 21 council meeting noted that no property owners in the city's designated shelter overlay zone were willing to sell or rent their property for the contruction of a building that would temporarily house the local homeless population.

Bob Adams, who represents business owners in the shelter zone, says he and other civic leaders have an alternative: a 10-acre parcel next to a major thoroughfare, which they're willing to donate to the city for a shelter.

Fred Holgate (left) of the Emergency Shelter Coalition and Bob Adams of the Rancho San Clemente Business Park look at land next to Avenida Pico. The business park wants to donate the land for a homeless shelter. (Julie Leopo/LAist)

On top of that, a group called the Emergency Shelter Coalition is offering $900,000 in start-up costs for a shelter at the site. The funds actually stem from a 2014 lawsuit that the shelter group won against the city for failing to zone for a potential shelter. (The group has been trying to get a shelter opened ever since.)

But city leaders have thus far largely ignored the offer.

"The (Coalition) has $900,000 in the bank, they had a builder. And they turned it all down," Adams said.

Mayor Pro Tem Dan Bane told us that since the land is zoned as open space, residents would have to vote to change the zoning. He thinks that's unlikely.

"Voters in San Clemente are very protective of open space," he said.

Still, the Emergency Shelter Coalition is pushing the city to consider ways to get around a public vote. Building on just one acre of land doesn't require a vote. Or, the land could be given to the county -- the county doesn't have to follow city zoning rules.

Bane said he had never heard either of those options posed until now. He said he's open to proposals, but what he and other city officials really want is to partner with neighboring cities on a regional homeless shelter.

Where? No one seems to know.

On May 24, San Clemente residents filled the train station parking lot to watch county and city workers move people out of the encampment and up to the newly-designated, city campsite a few blocks away.

Advocates and lawyers representing the homeless were also there.
One of the lawyers, Brooke Weitzman, has spent the last several years defending homeless people around Orange County. She said some residents had been so relentless in their heckling of the homeless that they had prevented county social workers from carrying out health and housing assessments.

"I have never seen the level of danger and hate of the San Clemente residents," Weitzman said. "They are scary and aggressive and have given me a whole new perspective on how terrible human beings can be."

William Brown says he's been living on the streets in San Clemente for the last three years. He was recently staying at the North Beach train station until authorities cleared the encampment in late May. (Julie Leopo/LAist)

Rick Loeffler, a retired LA police officer, was among those watching the encampment clearing. He said he came to make sure there was sufficient police presence during the move, and to see the train station cleared of tents.

He said residents' frustration had mounted over the past six months as they saw the most popular spots in their small town taken over by homeless encampments. Loeffler said they worried about the problem morphing into something like what LA and Seattle are facing.

"The feeling was if you don't nip it in the bud, it could turn into that," he said. "The community got together and mobilized and said, 'we're not going to let this happen in San Clemente.'"

Loeffler said San Clemente -- or at least someplace in south Orange County -- does need a homeless shelter. "I know the city council is working very diligently on a long-term solution."

So, did we solve the rat mystery?

Yes and no.

Someone (we don't know who) took them to the local animal shelter.

The first time we called the shelter to ask about the rats-- just a few days after the first video appeared online -- they told us that the matter was under investigation and refused to say more.

When we called again on Friday, the nice woman who picked up said yes, the rats would make good pets. Later, at San Clemente's June 4 City Council meeting, the General Manager of Orange County Vector Control, Rick Howard, confirmed that the rats were domestic. "Someone had set them there, had deployed them for whatever reason," Howard told council members.

The rats are now up for adoption at the shelter.

In the meantime, several TV news stations ran stories about the rat infestation at the homeless encampment, further fueling an increasingly high-tension debate over the city's response to homelessness.

As for who released the rats into the encampment...we don't have an answer. Is it possible that the rats made the journey themselves, after escaping from the nearest pet store, or 4th grade classroom? Or did someone plant them there? Clearly more detective work is needed to solve this mystery.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a new pet, you know where to go.


Wednesday June 5 at 4:17 p.m. :

The rats (eight total) are listed on San Clemente Animal Services' website.

They are all estimated as 2 years and 1 month old. And they all have "Toy Story" themed names, like Woody, Buzz and Slinky.

Friday June 7 at 12:21 p.m. :

The story has been updated to include OC Vector Control's opinion that the rats were not vermin but, in fact, pets.