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Community Center Fined $40k by Santa Ana Officials for Homeless Encampment on Its Property

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A 4-3 Santa Ana City Council decision made on Nov. 16 determined that El Centro Cultural de México will be fined $39,604, the amount they spent to obtain a court order to intervene and address an encampment on the center’s property.

El Centro reportedly refused to notify the police of the increasing number of homeless people camping in their parking lot, prompting city officials to formally call for the removal of those staying on the property. 

Orange County (OC) shut down its last remaining walk-in shelter, Courtyard, in downtown Santa Ana in February 2021 in order to build a more restrictive shelter, Yale, leaving fewer options available for homeless people in the community. Residents are prohibited from walking in or out of Yale and must meet the shelter’s eligibility criteria of obtaining a referral from police or health workers. 

“I think ultimately what we would like is to resolve this amicably with them in a way that would allow us to collaborate and get the best outcome for everyone involved, so we can try to get shelter and services for people living there and work with El Centro to clean up the property,” City of Santa Ana public affairs information officer Paul Eakins said

Santa Ana City Council members received 179 complaints from community members regarding the state of the area surrounding El Centro — mainly the neighborhood of Willard — between April 22, 2020 and April 20, 2021.

“I now get up in the morning and clean up the section of the alley that is closest to my home so that my children don’t come across any of this. I have had [a] homeless [person] get into the porch of my home in an attempt to get into my side yard only to be scared away by my dogs,” a resident living nearby El Centro said in a complaint letter to the city.

Community members speaking in support of El Centro during the meeting’s public comment period believed that the increase in people in the homeless encampment was out of the center’s control, and that city and county officials should be held responsible for addressing the lack of homeless shelters.

Council member Thai Viet Phan, who voted in favor of the motion, expressed criticism at the center while addressing the 179 community complaints detailing El Centro’s unsatisfactory property maintenance. 

“And the consequences are 170-plus complaints of safety, of people feeling attacked and endangered in the neighborhood,” Phan said. “The argument that because El Centro does good things, culturally or socially for our community, is trying to say, ‘Please forgive us for violating the law because you like us.’ To me, that’s wrong.”

On the other hand, council member Johnathan Hernandez, who voted in opposition, said the center should not be fined despite these complaints. 

“I’m not too open to seeing us take away resources from organizations already very limited, regardless of the fact that it did cause a lot of discomfort for residents,” Hernandez said

Santa Ana officials had previously reached a settlement with the center in which the city agreed to waive the fines El Centro had accumulated from Dec. 2020 to Jan. 2021, on the condition that the center address its city code violations and dissolve the encampment in a 45-day period. 

While the city held El Centro responsible for the issue, the center felt that limited space at other country shelters and housing restrictions were the underlying cause to be addressed.

However, Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge claimed that a number of individuals from El Centro were provided with shelter, and that some even refused their assigned spaces at the new, more restrictive Yale shelter.

The vote determined that the city will bill El Centro for the money. If the city does not receive payment from El Centro, officials clarified that a lien would be placed on the property and would have to be paid by the owner upon sale. 

Veronica Garza is a City News Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at garzavc@uci.edu.