Attorneys who have sued on behalf of Orange County's homeless to block enforcement of anti-camping ordinances sent a letter to San Clemente officials Wednesday objecting to a plan to set up a fenced, outdoor camping area in the seaside city and threatening litigation if the plan goes forward.
The San Clemente City Council on Tuesday voted to set up a designated area for transients in a city yard near Avenida Pico and Avenida Vista Hermosa.
City officials want to move the area's transients from the north beach area of the city.
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City staff wrote in a report to the council that the city can adopt an emergency ordinance to prohibit transients from camping at the beach.
"However, this ban on enforcement does not apply when the city finds that exigent circumstances relating to immediate threats to the public health, safety, and welfare so dictate," the staff report says. "This ordinance makes such findings."
City officials said in the staff report that they were "actively working" with county officials "and other stakeholders to develop both temporary and permanent solutions to this regional crisis." In the meantime, they maintain the city has right to prohibit "sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations" and to "designate certain public property for camping in order to protect the public health, safety and welfare of homeless persons and the general public welfare."
The attorneys for the homeless say the city is mistaken, citing a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that prohibits the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances unless municipal officials can establish they have provided adequate shelter space as an alternative.
Attorneys Carol Sobel, Brooke Weitzman and Catherine Sweetser, who represent the homeless in the Orange County federal litigation before U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, penned the letter objecting to the plan to move transients "to a fenced parking lot that will be subject to monitoring and security."
They said city officials have mistakenly interpreted the 9th Circuit ruling and deliberately "misquoted" part of it to avoid providing "indoor" shelter.
"The city may not avoid the requirement of adequate indoor shelter," their letter says. "If the city enforces its urgent ordinance, it will violate the Eighth Amendment under (the recent federal appellate ruling)."
The attorneys noted that the city failed to pass an emergency shelter ordinance earlier that would have allowed it to qualify for "considerable funds" through Homeless Emergency Aid Program grants.
"The city also has an offer of nearly $1 million from the Emergency Shelter Coalition," the attorneys' letter says. "In any event, a defense of indigency will not excuse the city from the obligation to comply with the law in this instance."
The attorneys said the city's plan "replicates the inhumane camps now holding refugees and asylum seekers along the southern border of the United States. Unsheltered individuals are not criminals. The city is not even willing to provide basic shelters for individuals at this location."
They said the lot has a "gravel base" that will make the land hot during the summer and provide no shade, and argued that confining transients to a fenced area with security would be a Fourth Amendment violation.
Messages left with city officials were not immediately returned.