By Daniel Ritz, Dana Point Times

On Feb. 13, the city of Dana Point hosted a community forum addressing homelessness at the Capo Beach Church. Dana Point City Council member Paul Wyatt, who also heads the Dana Point Homeless Task Force (HTF), introduced the meeting with presentations and question-and-answer sessions to hear public opinion concerning homelessness in Dana Point.

After an introduction explaining the origin and reconstruction of the HTF in 2017, including an introduction to the various voting and non-voting members of the HTF, Wyatt introduced one of the evening’s keynote speakers, Dana Point City Manager Mark Denny. Denny explained that the forum was a conscious effort by the city to increase public awareness of city activity revolving around the increasing homeless community in Dana Point.

Speaking next was Orange County District Attorney Tony Ruckaukas, who opened with a timeline graphing the decrease in property and violent crimes in Orange County since a peak in 1990. Noting a definable decrease in crime after the application of the “three-strikes” laws that held increased penalties for three-time felony offenders. Ruckaukas continued, explaining a variety of state legislature changes that impacted crime and homeless population growth since approximately 2014; including AB 109, Proposition 47 and Proposition 57.

AB109, passed by Governor Brown in 2011, effectively shifted responsibility for certain populations of offenders from the state to counties. Commonly referred to as the “Realignment Act,” AB109 was constructed to meet a U.S. Supreme Court order to reduce the state’s prison population by allowing for current nonviolent, non-serious and non-sex offenders to be shifted upon release at the local county level.

Ruckaukas continued, explaining to the crowd of almost 75 Dana Point residents, how Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 have increased the potential for crime to increase respectively; reducing potential felonies to misdemeanors and potentially reducing the penalty of time served by those previously convicted of reclassified crimes, including “three strikes,” felonies and parole consideration for nonviolent felons.

“What happens to suspects that are receiving all of these misdemeanor citations?” asked City Council member Debra Lewis.

Ruckaukas explained that he believed these citations were not effective, and penalty upon non-payment or appearance in court was not timely.

After Ruckaukas, Denny returned to the stage where he gave a homeless update. He gave a lengthy explanation of the various programs Dana Point is using, especially pointing out an emphasis on recommendation services and “Life on the Streets” programs.

“We are interested in stopping homelessness, not simply dealing with it,” Denny said.

Mercy House Outreach Coordinator Stephani Ogas, who is contracted by the city of Dana Point, joined Denny for a question and answer session pertaining to direct homeless community interaction.

The conversation quickly escalated surrounding the daily Welcome INN “feed” at Doheny State Beach. A number of community members voiced their exasperation surrounding the feed’s negative enabling and possible homeless community attracting potential.

When asked what the city was doing concerning the feed, Denny responded stating, “I don’t know of any free country where you can stop volunteers from gathering and giving food to other people. We have spoken with the leaders of this feed, and they are aware of our feelings.”

He encouraged any members of the forum that were members of the 18 faith-based groups that organize the feed to speak with their leadership and express their concerns.

Dana Point Chief of Police Services Russ Chilton said that most of the churches involved in the feed at Doheny were aware of the public concern surrounding the daily event.

“We are in a transition stage,” Chilton said, to the visible relief to a number of vocal forum attendees. “Alternatives are actively being considered.”

The evening concluded with a lengthy public comment session, where Chilton and Denny both repeated, on numerous occasions, the importance of picking up the phone, as Chilton said, and calling city representatives or sheriff’s department authorities when interaction with the homeless occurs.

“Too often, I read (a personal testimonial) about an event days later on Nextdoor or Facebook,” Chilton said. “One of the biggest continuous issues is under-reporting. Reporting on social media is simply not enough.”

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