For some, the idea of allowing the OccupyOC patriots in Santa Ana the ability to camp overnight in the Civic Center should be a no-brainer for the City Council. After all, if Irvine can do it why can’t Santa Ana? As with most things civic, it’s not that simple. The matter has been placed on the council agenda for discussion tonight by Council Members David Benavides and Michele Martinez.
Back in 1992, in response to the problems created by a tent city erected in the Civic Center by homeless individuals the city enacted an ordinance to ban camping in public spaces. The law was subsequently affirmed by the California Supreme Court in 1995.
Sec. 10-402. – Unlawful camping.
It shall be unlawful for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities or use camp paraphernalia in the following areas, except as otherwise provided:
(a) Any street;
(b) Any public parking lot or public area, improved or unimproved.
To amend the law to allow a particular class of individuals such as the OccupyOC patriots to camp, while not allowing others would violate the rights of those not allowed (the homeless) equal protection under the law. If the City Council wishes to repeal the entire law and allow camping by anyone, that would be fair. The problem for the city is that the Civic Center is a magnet for many homeless individuals in central OC. The homeless have been occupying Santa Ana, and getting cited for it, for decades. OC Register reporter Andrew Galvin wrote last week:
Dwight Smith, who runs the Catholic Worker house in Santa Ana, which shelters homeless women and children, said he’s grateful that the Occupy movement has brought the camping issue before the City Council.
Smith argues that the Civic Center camping ordinance criminalize homelessness, since it defines camping as sleeping for longer than a brief nap. The law is loosely enforced, he said.
“A lot of homeless people camp every night and get a ticket every month,” he said. “The homeless people never pay the tickets, the cost of incarceration — this is going directly to the taxpayer. … We can’t afford to enforce that law any more.”
Adam Elmahrek of Voice of OC reported the following from city spokesman Jose Gonzalez:
“We explained that if the city allowed camping during this demonstration it would undercut its authority to enforce the law against other persons who violate the code. We emphasized that the city is only regulating conduct and not their First Amendment rights to demonstrate,” Gonzales said.
It would be great if the City Council were to seriously address the reality of homelessness in Santa Ana and recognize that homeless individuals are not criminals or squatters. The Council could amend the ordinance to permit camping during specific time periods, requiring “camps” to be dismantled between certain hours every day. Such a solution would allow camping by both the OccupyOC patriots, and homeless individuals. That would be equal protection under the law, and stop the practice of treating the homeless as criminals.
Unfortunately, I will be surprised if the city council is bold or creative enough to seriously consider such a solution. I get the feeling the Occupy patriots are merely being given lip service with the discussion scheduled for tonight.