Recent visits through the Veterans Historical Plaza in Old Town Newhall are becoming more disturbing to some Santa Clarita residents who are alarmed by what they’re seeing in a place that is supposed to be a solemn tribute to those who have sacrificed for their country.
Rick Barker, a member of the Veterans Memorial Committee, said he’s found syringes, used condoms and trash in the bushes, and more and more homeless campers who are bedding down there at all times of the day. Barker is taking the matter to the Veterans Memorial Committee, asking the committee to take some sort of action to address the matter.
“I stopped in (at the plaza) to see my good friend Bill Reynolds’ memorial plaque — they just put the new one up and it’s absolutely gorgeous, and there’s this guy laying there,” Barker said. “Anybody that went there to see the memorial would literally have to step over that guy.”
The guy was asleep, Barker added, and his wheelchair along with various bags and other belongings surrounded him as a sort of barrier.
Bob Kellar, president of the Veterans Memorial Committee and a former Santa Clarita city councilman, said he’ll be right there with Barker in pushing the committee to do something about the issue when they meet this month.
“The veterans plaza is kind of a memorial park, if you will, a sacred place for our veterans,” he told The Signal in a telephone interview. “And this is absolutely unacceptable. This is a place where we hold reverence for our service members and those that have passed on. I just find it disgusting.”
According to Capt. Justin Diez of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, a full-time homeless outreach services deputy addresses such issues. This is a somewhat newer position for the SCV Sheriff’s Station, Diez said. The position was created a few months ago, and this deputy works to offer services to the homeless — anything from transitional housing to alcohol or drug rehabilitation and mental health assistance to those willing to get out of their homeless situation.
“We’re fortunate in Santa Clarita that we have a small homeless population,” Diez told The Signal. “However, they do exist. And we often get calls because people don’t like it. They don’t want to see them on the street. They don’t want to see them on the sidewalk. They don’t want to see them at parks. And it kind of puts us in a unique situation because, you know, it’s not illegal to be homeless.”
Diez added that while his deputies can’t simply arrest someone for being homeless, they can step in if someone — anyone — is doing something illegal.
“There are certainly crimes that homeless people can commit that are against the law, of course,” he said. “So, what would be an example? Potentially blocking the sidewalk, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, illegal camping on private property, things of that nature.”
And what constitutes illegal camping? It’s tricky to determine, Diez answered. Someone with a tent or a bunch of belongings or who might be in one particular place for an extended period of time without a purpose could be suspect.
The Veterans Historical Plaza in Old Town Newhall is certainly a location where that kind of activity has been reported. It’s almost an ideal setting.
According to the city of Santa Clarita’s website, the “design team’s goal was to create a place of serenity and reflection in the middle of the bustling city. The placement of water features provides both a dramatic visual effect and serves to reduce traffic noise from adjacent Newhall Avenue.”
That plaza, Diez said, is also near the Bridge to Home homeless shelter and the Salvation Army.
“The Salvation Army,” he added, “gives food to the homeless every single day.”
According to Carrie Lujan, public information officer for the city of Santa Clarita, the city has taken note of the current situation.
“The city of Santa Clarita has received complaints about people experiencing homelessness at Veterans Historical Plaza in Old Town Newhall,” she wrote in an email to The Signal. “In response, we have increased our code enforcement presence in the area and are working with our public safety partners with the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station to ensure that people are not camping onsite.”
Michael Villegas, the city’s community preservation manager, said the city’s code enforcement officers typically address these matters in a more reactive approach.
“We’re complaint-driven,” he told The Signal. “So, as soon as we receive a complaint from a resident or community member, a concerned citizen, a city staff member — whoever it may be — we go out, we assess the situation.”
The city’s code enforcement program, he said, is comprised of about eight code enforcement officers who are tasked with enforcing the Santa Clarita municipal code.
“So, increasing presence of code enforcement officers basically means that officers will swing by the area proactively,” he continued. “We’re going out there proactively and actually looking for the violation to hopefully address it. Specific to individuals sleeping or camping out at the Veterans Historical Plaza within the city’s municipal code, specifically in chapter 14, there is a provision that prohibits people from sitting, sleeping, lying down — basically using any public place or park as a place of residence. Those who are doing that, we typically will make contact with them.”
Similar to the Sheriff’s Department’s homeless outreach services deputy, the city’s code enforcement officers usually try to connect homeless people with local homeless shelters or other applicable services.
According to Villegas, the city’s code enforcement officers are not armed, but they do carry pepper spray. If a situation were to escalate, he said they’d certainly involve the Sheriff’s Department.
As to what the Veterans Memorial Committee might suggest when they meet this month, Barker said they could just decide to formally bring their concerns to the city and the Sheriff’s Department. They could also have the landscaping company that does work at the plaza make more frequent rounds to clean up the trash and left-behind belongings.
Residents with concerns about unlawful campers or individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol in public places can call the city’s community preservation division at 661-286-4076. Anyone who observes violent behavior or other criminal or threatening acts that could endanger life and property should call 911.