San Clemente residents say homeless encampments at North Beach are blocking sidewalk access for disabled people
SAN CLEMENTE — Tiffany DiMeco pushed her brother, Chad Bowser, in his wheelchair along the sidewalk near the Metrolink train station at North Beach. As she made her way forward, she was blocked by at least three tents set up by homeless people.
At first, Duane Gibson, who identified himself as a Navy veteran, refused to budge, telling DiMeco there was a ramp to help with disabled access farther along the sidewalk. DiMeco told him she didn’t want to wheel her brother — who is immobile and suffers from a severe brain injury — in the beach parking lot with cars driving by.
After heated words, Gibson got out of his chair and let DiMeco and Bowser pass, cautioning them not to wheel over his belongings, set up near his tent.
Though the parking lot wasn’t crowded on Wednesday, May 1, and DiMeco could have opted to push her brother through the lot and past the encampment, she said, the encounter likely hints at what will be become a bigger problem as summer approaches and visitors come to town.
The incident, which drew a response from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, is an example of what DiMeco and other San Clemente residents say is ruining the quality of life in this beach town. Residents have rallied on social media, asked for help from the City Council and met with OCSD to find a solution.
But a recent ruling by the 9th Circuit of Appeals, in the case Martin v. Boise, found that cities are not allowed to force homeless people off of the streets if they have nowhere to go but a city sidewalk, park or other public space. Thus, city officials and law enforcement in San Clemente say their hands are tied.
San Clemente is one of five South County cities named in a February lawsuit in which three homeless people, including Gibson — who in the lawsuit is identified as Duane Nichols, 60 — argue that anti-camping ordinances and other laws criminalize homeless people.
On Monday night, April 29, resident Eva O’Keefe created a Change.org petition to put pressure on the city. In the petition, O’Keefe writes: “It appears that our City Council in San Clemente and OCSD believe that due to the Martin vs. Boise decision, they are allowed to block the right of way and can’t be moved. OCDA and ADA disagree. Those tents can’t be blocking the sidewalks for disabled people. They must provide 36-inch clear access for wheelchairs. We feel compassion for those that have fallen in hard times and don’t have a home; however, our disabled community needs to have access to the sidewalk.”
O’Keefe said she and others called Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer’s office protesting Wednesday’s sidewalk incident as a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The Orange County District Attorney’s Office is ready and able to prosecute homeless who are service-resistant, refusing services or shelter opportunities,” Spitzer said in a statement. “Unfortunately, law enforcement is hamstrung in the ability to make those arrests until there are sufficient city beds.”
As of Thursday, May 2, 2,776 people had signed the petition. Residents also plan to attend the City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 7 to make their outcry more public.
Residents point to City Councilwoman Laura Ferguson as someone trying to move the discussion along. Ferguson earlier this week sent an email to San Clemente City Manager James Makshanoff asking that he prepare an agenda report for the May 7 City Council meeting sharing the city’s plan to provide temporary emergency shelter beds for the homeless population.
“To not place this on the City Council agenda on May 7th and every agenda going forward until we have a shelter plan in place, and to continue holding this conversation in closed session without properly noticing it on the agenda, is a Brown Act violation,” Ferguson wrote in the email she posted on social media on Tuesday, April 30. “It is time for a public update on this as well as a public discussion on solving this problem. North Beach, in particular, is a growing concern.”
Homeless tents appeared on the sidewalk near the train station and the city’s Beach Trail after they were moved from around the city-owned Ole Hansen Beach Club about five weeks ago. Residents say there have long been local homeless people in town, but they stayed in areas such as Trestles, the hills or near the local Walmart.
“There are continuing numbers of these people coming in and taking advantage of the city of San Clemente,” said former City Council candidate Gene James. “This is a public health issue, the feces, the urine, the needles in the sand and in the bushes. They’re coming from all over the country.”
While DiMeco and Bowser still are reeling from their encounter, they said they are more outraged by the city’s inaction.
“The city is really dragging their heels, even after our explosive outrage,” DiMeco said. “We are a kind, loving town but these people are taking advantage of us. Out-of-towners suing us so they can live free at our beaches.”