Last Updated:November 26 @ 05:35 pm

Advocates: Cities passing rules targeting homeless

By Gillian Flaccus

COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) - Army veteran Don Matyja was getting by alright on the streets of this city tucked in Southern California suburbia until he got ticketed for smoking in the park. Matyja, who has been homeless since he was evicted nearly two years ago, had trouble paying the fine and getting to court - and now a $25 penalty has ballooned to $600.

The ticket is just one of myriad new challenges facing Matyja and others living on the streets in Orange County, where a number of cities have recently passed ordinances that ban everything from smoking in the park to sleeping in cars to leaning bikes against trees in a region better known for its beaches than its 30,000 homeless people.

Cities have long struggled with how to deal with the homeless, but the new ordinances here echo what homeless advocates say is a rash of regulations nationwide as municipalities grapple with how to address those living on their streets within the constraints of ever-tightening budgets. The rules may go unnoticed by most, but the homeless say they are a thinly veiled attempt to push them out of one city and into another by criminalizing the daily activities they cannot avoid.

There's been a sharp uptick in the past year in the number of cities passing ordinances against doing things on public property such as sitting, lying down, sleeping, standing in a public street, loitering, public urination, jaywalking and panhandling, said Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"It definitely is more pervasive and it is more adversarial. I think in the past we found examples of it but it's not simply just growing, but it's growing in its severity and in its targeted approach to America's un-housed," said Donovan, who compared it to a civil rights issue.

"There's the whole notion of driving while black. Well, this is sitting while homeless."

Denver earlier this year voted to make urban camping illegal despite protests from homeless activists. Philadelphia banned feedings in public parks in June but the ordinance was put on hold the following month after homeless groups sued the city. And there's a new curfew for pets that help their owners beg on the Las Vegas Strip.

Matyja, in Costa Mesa, has gotten multiple tickets for smoking in the park where he camps out since the law took effect earlier this year.

"When I was in the military, I'm golden. When I was working, I was golden. When I'm not working and I'm out here, I'm a piece of garbage as far as these people are concerned," said Matyja, 50, as he walked past a row of neatly manicured lawns on a sweltering day. "They figure if they don't see you, then the problem don't exist and then they can say, 'We don't have a homeless problem.'"

The Newport Beach Public Library, nestled in a coastal city better known for its surfing and miles of wide beaches, recently updated a policy that says staff can evict someone for having poor hygiene or a strong aroma. The policy also bans lounging on library furniture and creates strict limits about parking shopping carts, bikes and "other wheeled conveyances" outside the premises.

Library Services Director Cynthia Cowell insists the policy isn't aimed at the homeless, but the action has nonetheless stirred anger among homeless advocates.

"They become very clever about it and try to blanket it because they say "strong aroma" could be perfume also, but in the end it's an attempt to keep people out of where the neighborhood and community folks feel uncomfortable," said Scott Mather, director of Haven, a program for Orange County's chronically homeless.

Some cities have seen a legal backlash as homeless advocacy groups sue. Last week, the homeless in Sacramento got checks ranging from $400 to $750 apiece to settle a class-action lawsuit brought after police destroyed property seized during cleanup operations. In a similar case, a federal appeals court ruled last month that the city of Los Angeles cannot seize property left temporarily unattended on sidewalks by homeless residents.

For cities struggling with large homeless populations, the solution involves walking a tightrope between complaints from the voting public and the possibility of a lawsuit.

In Costa Mesa, a city of about 110,000 tucked between south Orange County's famous beaches and the tourist mecca of Disneyland, officials have been trying to figure out what to do about a homeless population of about 1,200 people, including up to 120 chronically homeless with severe mental illness or substance abuse issues.

Residents routinely complain about the homeless in Lions Park, a large green space in the city's downtown that is home to the library, a recreation center and a community swimming pool. The city has received calls about people masturbating and urinating outside the library's windows, taking baths in the park's fountain and leering at children who attend classes at the rec center, said Rick Francis, the city's assistant chief executive officer.

On a recent day, dozens of homeless individuals lounged in the park on blankets or sat near bikes piled high with plastic bags, bedrolls, sleeping bags and, in one instance, a full-sized suitcase that dangled from the handlebars. A man who appeared to be intoxicated panhandled outside the library, asking passersby for cigarettes.

Another man listening to a portable radio said he'd been released from prison earlier in the week and had nowhere else to go.

"We get a lot of complaints from residents who feel like, 'Hey, here's a municipal resource that we're fearful to even use because we don't want our kids playing in a park where they have to step over homeless people and all their possessions,'" Francis said.

"Look, we're not asking all you guys to leave but we want to be able to come to the park and enjoy it without the blight of stacks and stacks and stacks of property laying around, without the issues of human waste being scattered about, those types of things."

Costa Mesa formed a homeless task force last spring and came up with a "carrot and stick approach," said Muriel Ullman, the city's housing consultant.

The city hopes to build more affordable housing using federal grant money and county resources and has hired a mental health worker to connect with the chronically homeless. It has also partnered with local churches to set up a storage facility where the homeless can keep their belongings to avoid having them confiscated, Ullman said.

But Costa Mesa has also passed a slate of new ordinances, including bans on parking a bike anywhere but on a city bike rack, smoking in the park and sleeping in the park after dark, she said. The city also spent $60,000 to tear down a gazebo that attracted large numbers of homeless people, asked churches to stop soup kitchens there and hired two rangers to patrol the park.

The mayor last week stoked anger by calling soup kitchens nuisances and asking the city to investigate some decades-old charities there.

Critics say that Costa Mesa is "just trying to get rid of our homeless, but what we're trying to do is help those who want help and if somebody doesn't want help - and they have refused help on numerous occasions - we want the courts to deal with them," Ullman said.

Homeless advocates who have watched the ordinances roll out in Costa Mesa and other, neighboring, cities aren't so sure.

The high cost of living in Orange County, coupled with a severe shortage of affordable housing and lack of shelter space, make it impossible for many homeless people to get back on their feet, said Bob Murphy, general manager of the local nonprofit American Family Housing. Most wind up migrating from city to city to avoid trouble, he said.

In Costa Mesa, a recent city report found a shortage of more than 1,000 transitional shelter beds for the city's population alone.

"These are people. It's not like you can go out with a dog catcher and scoop them up and put them somewhere else," Murphy said. "They have no place to go."

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  1. newrepublicanComment by newrepublican
    October 8, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    Hypocrite liberals! I have no sympathy for the residents who vote into office the people who will raise income and proprty taxes to the point where charitable organizations scrape for donations to support the poor. Then these charities get the double whammy from the mayor!

    “The mayor last week stoked anger by calling soup kitchens nuisances …”

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    • seaofteaamericanComment by seaofteaamerican
      October 8, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

      The Stupid is What the Stupid does in many States not just California. I was one of the homeless veteran population and have scratch my way out of the hell hole I was. News Flash to everyone I vote too!As a veteran I’m appalled at the way were were and are treated when we come back that’s why I’m committed to never allowing it to happen on my watch where I’m at in Massachusetts. As a volunteer and a veteran advocate I’m quite adapt to speaking on this subject as I not only “Talk the Talk” I actually “Walk the Walk” so I dare a Liberal progressive to actually converse with me on this matter.

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  2. flyfisherman12Comment by flyfisherman12
    October 8, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    Well, leave to California to jump on the band wagon to try and generate revenue any lousy way then can!

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  3. Bill from MiddletownComment by Bill from Middletown
    October 8, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    At one time, churches and private charities largely took care of those unable to care for themselves. There is no mention of private sector involvement in the article, at all. It seems the more the government is responsible for things, the worse they get.

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    • StephComment by Steph
      October 9, 2012 @ 2:52 am

      Here is another problem Bill, with everyone’s income down and prices skyrocketing, those of us who contribute can’t give as much as we used to. All charities are hurting today – they are getting the same donations and they face rising costs too. To have this mayor call soup kitchens a nuisance is a slap in the face of all those folks out there trying to help others. Soup kitchens are usually owned/operated by charities (churches and other organizations). No I am not a “progressive” and I also know that there is no simple answer to this problem. It is everywhere – not just here in CA. Thing is southern California has awesome weather and it would be a great place for the homeless – I understand the draw to it. I wish I could wave a magic wand and have a great solution but I don’t. I do know that I see tons of food wasted every day at the grocery store – they can’t give it away past the due date, right? So they throw it away. Think of the people one grocery store could feed. I am just typing off the top of my head but we, as Americans, ought to be able to come up with some sort of solution for this. I just don’t know what it is.

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    • newrepublicanComment by newrepublican
      October 9, 2012 @ 6:41 am


      The solution is VERY EASY. Stop the government from supporting anything but what is enumerated in the US Constitution. Allow the PEOPLE to drive the solutions in the free market. People will support the organizations be they charitable or for-profit if they are effective. If they turn out to be ineffective then people will FREELY take their money to another support organization. When the government is running the show the only solution to ineffective programs is to throw more money at it, which is confiscated from us. That makes the current problem a bigger problem! We must stand against GOVERNMENT RUN SOCIAL JUSTICE and set a public expectation that the FREE MARKET will keep people from starving or freezing and encourage them to get an education and get a job. The government cannot do this in a cost effective manner.

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    • yoldsComment by yolds
      October 9, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

      Not trying to be an *** when I say this but, if they all moved, and I mean all of them from across America and landed upon the White House lawn, would that make a big enough statement. something needs to be done about this problem, I travel alot and see alot of homeless, some are there by choice, but I truely believe that most of them are there out of circumstance. In order to help them we need to come up with a private sector alternative to this. In Green Bay WI, the city wanted to close down the shelter due to overcrowding and to clean up the neighborhood because there was so many of them. Instead of helping them, they wanted to freeze them to deeth. The shelter was a Church! Shame on the people who cannot find it in their hearts to help those who need it.

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  4. smthnsmllsnthewhthowsmstbobaaaamaComment by smthnsmllsnthewhthowsmstbobaaaama
    October 8, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    Why in the world haven’t the experts figured out how to take care of homelessness? Oh, that’s right, they haven’t been homeless nor gone through anything remotely close to it. Obviously, they will never find the answers. It’s not all about mental problems (insanity) for every single one of the homeless so, yep, they’re never going to figure it out. Problem not solved and they will continue to fail when they try to take care of it. The holy bible is right-there will always be the poor and needy.

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  5. bigjohn555Comment by bigjohn555
    October 8, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    Wait a minute. This is California, home to all the people that “care.” They care about the whales. They care about the seals. They care about the tree frogs and ground owls. They care about pollution. They care about all the trees and all the forests.
    Seems as though they just don’t give a damn about society’s downtrodden.

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  6. Charles HeckmanComment by Charles Heckman
    October 8, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    Let’s get Congress to pass a special draft law that permits the Armed Forces to draft any public official or personnel officer in the private sector who discriminates against veterans in employment, housing, credit applications, or anything else on which Americans depend for financial support. We should draft the mayor of Costa Mesa, put him in uniform, give him a gun, and ship him off to Afghanistan for a two-year tour of duty, with possibility of extension if there is still a need. When he comes back, we tell him that he is not mayor anymore and will be denied any other job for which he applies. The bank can also illegally foreclose on his house while he is away, forcing him to used some of the money he has stashed away to hire a lawyer. Drafting him and tens of thousands like him, who have denied veterans jobs since the Vietnam War, should restore the manpower of our Armed Forces and make the punishment for human rights violations fit the crime.

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  7. prairelivingComment by praireliving
    October 8, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

    I am quite sure that every one of these communities already has laws concerning leering at children, urinating in public, partaking in sexual activity in public, and probably taking baths in fountains. Use the laws already on the books to take care of those problems. When the mayor states that soup kitchens are a nuisance it is clear that there is little or no compassion for those less fortunate.

    I still recall seeing a homeless woman in Washington DC and I didn’t have my wallet or any money with me (I was walking back from feeding the meter and had put all my money in it) but I smiled at her and said hello. She got the biggest grin on her face and said hello back. It dawned on me that I may have been the first person that day (or maybe even longer) who treated her as a human being. If we strive realize and recognize that each person is made in the image and likeness of God and try to find Jesus in each person we meet we will do what we can to help.

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    • yoldsComment by yolds
      October 9, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

      While staying in Chicago a homeless lady approched me in McDonalds, she was .25 short of getting a burger and free fries(coupon-buy burger get frys). the manager came running out and tried to throw her out of the place. I stopped the manager and said, (obviously wasn’t the truth) “she is with me, and she can order anything she wants” the manager glared at me and accepted what I had said. The lady, whom I could tell had not eaten in quite some time, ordered a Quarter Pounder meal (and her free fries) and gave to me the biggest smile and thank you “sir” that I had ever recieved. Now I know how McDonalds Rest. time their food, and they THROW away ALOT. wouldn’t it be better to give to the homeless instead of the pigs? I wish I could do more for them, very sad.

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  8. kattekerComment by katteker
    October 8, 2012 @ 9:38 pm

    Just imagine the many cases one can lose his mind, specially veterans forced to follow rules made by ignorant ones, who never faced a gun barrel, booby-trap or stepped on a mine! They’v never heard of head trauma, they are heartless and mindless, void of love to their neighbor!The Lord Jesus has a parable for all those careless creatures and their final destiny is determined, except they REPENT!

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  9. gnafuComment by gnafu
    October 8, 2012 @ 11:43 pm

    CA is known for radical laws – that encroach on Everyone’s privacy. If I were the Vet, I’d get out of CA as soon as possible. I say leave CA to Pelosi and the Illegals, Liberals and the Orientals…I hope the Orientals can stand the Liberals and Pelosi. Not allowed to light dinner candles inside or outside, Not allowed to cook outside, Not allowed to smoke inside any building or outside…smoke what, I’m not sure. There are more laws and regulations but I can’t recall all of them.

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  10. redseaComment by redsea
    October 9, 2012 @ 3:46 am

    In addition to the law, why don’t they also get all of these people and put them in a shelter, and give them a job to clean, and mow the grass of the park they are are sleeping in? For sure something can be done to get these people back on their feet again.

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