A Place for the Unseen: City grapples with zoning for homeless shelter

By Jim Shilander

No city likes dealing with its homelessness issues, but San Clemente is now being forced to.

Wednesday May 7, the city’s Planning Commission will hear from residents and debate where to allow homeless shelters. State law mandates the city must decide “where” and not “if.”

California passed Senate Bill 2 in 2007. Beginning in 2008, the law required cities to designate an area where emergency shelters and transitional housing could be built or created–once a city developed an approved housing element in its city planning documents.

San Clemente’s housing element was adopted in 2011, putting it “on the clock” to amend its zoning, since such shelters are currently not allowed anywhere in the city. The city must now designate a zone, or zones, where a shelter is allowed.

Denise Obrero, the city’s housing director, said the most important thing for residents to know is that while a shelter might be allowed, the city doesn’t actually have to build one.

“Once we designate an area, then a homeless services provider, a nonprofit or a faith-based group can come into that area or site and go through the city’s permitting process by right,” Obrero said.

Obrero said state officials deemed the designation necessary since many cities had not made attempts to open their zoning restrictions due to the contentiousness of the issue.

Who Are the Homeless?

Orange County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Joe Bull serves as the police department’s homeless liaison. Many of the city’s approximately 65-person, year-round homeless population know him well.

Bull says the city’s homeless population is not static. North Beach, especially, provides stopping point, with a train station, bus stops and other transit points.

“It’s definitely seasonal. The warmer weather brings them out,” Bull said. “But it also generates more calls for us because it’s not only them enjoying the beach city. There are other visitors who call us to report them for panhandling or alcohol in public and the things that go with it.”

There is also a steady call volume related to the long-term homeless in the city, Bull said.

Some transients make their stays here permanent while others move on with regularity. The 65-person count typically represents a group that has been in the city for a longer period of time. That number also includes those who might have camps just outside of the city limits, such as at San Clemente State Park or Doheny State Beach.

Bull said approximately 90 percent of the city’s chronic homeless have chemical dependency and alcohol-related issues. Some also have addictions that appear to be coupled with mental-health problems.

Some homeless people can create camp sites that go largely undetected by the public for long periods, Bull said, while others might move their space each day, or spend a couple of nights on the beach in warmer weather before moving on.

Residents Concerns

The city has targeted a number of potential shelter sites, which, according to the law, must be close to both public transportation and a job center, but also removed from city schools, residential areas and parks. The latter restrictions essentially eliminate most of the city from consideration, Obrero said.

The city plans to present six different sites Wednesday. Sites include the location of the former Kmart on Camino de Estrella, a city-owned utility yard on Avenida Pico near North Beach, a pair of sites in the Rancho San Clemente Business Park and a site behind Denny’s on Avenida Pico.

Also among the possibilities is an area along a canyon on Avenida Pico, between Calle Frontera and Vera Cruz—a seven-acre site owned by the Rancho San Clemente Business Park Association. However, changing the zoning of the area would require a city-wide vote, since it would involve altering the designation from open space.

“Residents have asked us why we haven’t considered the El Camino (Real) corridor, running through the middle of town,” Obrero said. “Clearly, that area is surrounded by residential—the entire corridor. Even though it’s along the bus line and near job centers, it wouldn’t be a suitable space.”

Obrero said the city initially considered the business park as a whole because it housed Family Assistance Ministries and three large churches. It is also close to public transit. However, residents and businesses have banded together to oppose the proposal.

“It’s a challenge,” Obrero said. “I moved from the Bay Area, and in the Bay Area, you see homeless, you interact with homeless, it’s a day-to-day occurrence. In south county, and in San Clemente, there’s not a lot of conversation about homeless needs, even though we all see homeless downtown. There’s not a lot of dialogue, and I think people are uncomfortable with the topic and about what to do.”

Jeffrey Scott, executive director of homeless advocacy organization iHOPE, said the group is not prepared to immediately open a shelter.

“We’re just working to keep this alive, to make sure the option is on the table,” Scott said. “We’re not even near the stage where anyone would step in.”

Scott said he feared too many people were “fast-forwarding” the process to a point where a shelter was in place and causing problems.

Residents near the Kmart site, both from San Clemente and Dana Point, have expressed concerns about the potential loss of property values if a shelter were allowed in the area, as well as close proximity to residences. One Capistrano Beach resident handed out information packets Friday that urged neighbors to attend Wednesday’s meeting if they have concerns.

Io meet state requirements, San Clemente can also designate the number of beds that churches can provide.

In Dana Point, churches are restricted to 10 beds. The area’s largest shelter, located at Capo Beach Church, closed its doors after the city began enforcing the 10-bed zoning restriction. But according to city staff, churches and organizations in Dana Point and Capistrano Beach can apply for a conditional use permit that would allow for an emergency shelter with 20 beds.

Obrero noted several San Clemente churches are close to 15,000 square feet and potentially could accommodate more people. The commission could also be flexible and use different standards for different zones, since some churches are closer to residential areas. The commission can also develop a maximum number of beds or tie the number of beds to square footage.

“To put a cap on those churches, it will be an interesting conversation for the Planning Commission to sit through,” Obrero said. “We will not propose anything at this point. It will be up to the Planning Commission.”

Rules outside of San Clemente:

Dana Point:

  • Shelters are restricted to community facility zones.
  • Churches are capped at 10 beds and a shelter in the CFZ to 20.
  • Shelters must have central cooking and dining rooms, recreation rooms, a counseling center and laundry facilities.
  • Organized outdoor activities must end at 10 p.m.

San Juan Capistrano:

  • Shelters restricted to public and institutional zones.
  • Shelters or churches are limited to one bed per 25 square feet.
  • Shelter must have an on-site manager during operation, a strategic plan for handling community concerns, forbid loitering of shelter residents and implement a security plan.

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