The Santa Clarita City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a municipal code amendment geared toward preventing people from “living” in public places, raising objections from several residents who argued that the amendment will negatively impact the homeless.
The amendment expands the definition of “public places” to include trails, open space areas and other facilities that were not previously codified. The new language also allows city officials to address any encampment or dwelling that may arise at new municipal facilities. It will go into effect in 30 days.
“Our intent is to expand our existing approach,” said City Communications Manager Carrie Lujan. “This ordinance has been in effect for several years, but we hadn’t updated it to include new structures. The bottom line is, this is a way for us to connect these vulnerable members of the community with the services and resources they need to find housing.”
During public comment, several residents raised concerns that the homeless would be negatively affected by the new language, which states that people may not “sit or lie down upon a public sidewalk” and other areas.
Diane Trautman, a former city planning commissioner who is running for City Council, asked the council to table the item until the city has developed a plan to strategically tackle homelessness, such as ensuring the seasonal homeless shelter, Bridge to Home, has raised sufficient funds to build a year-round shelter.
The ordinance originated in May 1990, said Community Preservation Manager Danny Rivas. It was last updated in May 2013, but has not been changed to address several of the new facilities the city added since, he said.
“In terms of our approach to encampments citywide, that has been going on for over three years,” he said. “Our program and approach to connecting (homeless people) to services has not changed and will not change. All we are doing is expanding our approach.”
Lujan said no residents have ever been cited for residing in public parks if they are holding a picnic or activity. Code enforcement officers can connect members of Santa Clarita’s homeless population to resources, she said.
Councilman Cameron Smyth, head of the city’s ad hoc homelessness committee, said there has been a “lot of hyperbole” around the issue.
“All we did last night was extend the same restrictions that currently apply to city parks and public facilities,” he said Wednesday. “As we look at implementing a holistic approach to addressing homeless in Santa Clarita, updating language to our codes and ordinances are a part of that.”
“One of the comments was that you could be cited for lying on a blanket, and as I said at the meeting last night, this language has been in place for city parks for a number of years,” he added. “At no point has anyone been cited for lying on their blankets at a city park. But any assertion that people at the Fourth of July parade or Concerts in the Park are in violation of this ordinance is silly and 100 percent false.”
Resident Mai Nguyen Do said the vagueness in the amendment’s language enabled abuse of the local homeless population and that the city had not been proactive enough about addressing their concerns.
“Regardless, if we’re simply extending pre-existing policies as the city claims, then we’re continuing the neglect and abuse of our homeless population that has led to the suicide of Elizabeth Torres and suffering of so many other local homeless citizens,” she said. “If the city has to verbally explain the language, that means it’s poorly written.”
Torres was struck and killed by a Metrolink train in May.
United Way, a nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless people, recently awarded the city a $50,000 grant to formulate a plan to combat homelessness.
Bridge to Home, a nonprofit seasonal homeless shelter, is in the process of solidifying a year-round location.
One of the concerns was the ability to build a full-service homeless services center at the existing location, while having the building continue to be operational, said Peggy Edwards, president of the Bridge to Home board of directors.
The city and the shelter are finalizing deeds for the property before architects can be hired, she said.
The shelter’s 2018-19 fiscal year budget of $1.3 million has $400,000 more than last year’s, due to funding from Los Angeles County’s Measure H initiative to fight homelessness.
County funds and Measure H funds have also contributed $680,000 for a family building for the future homeless services facility, Edwards said.
“We’re a small agency,” she said. “And like a new business, it will take a while for us to get the funding and plan in place, and open. Our goal would be to open as soon as possible.”