Homeless at San Clemente’s North Beach relocated to city lot, as legal motion is filed to remove judge from related lawsuit
SAN CLEMENTE — Steven Gustafson got up at 5 a.m. Friday, May 24 and packed his belongings to be ready to leave his camping spot in a North Beach parking lot and relocate to a city storage lot by noon.
“I’m so glad they gave us that lot,” he said. “I was going to be ready, no matter what. I want to be out of the way, where people don’t have to look at me.”
Gustafson, 63, a former Whittier resident who became homeless in 2016 and arrived in San Clemente after living on the streets in Dana Point, was among a dozen homeless people forced to move from North Beach following an “urgency” ordinance passed by the San Clemente City Council on Tuesday.
The ordinance prohibits camping on private property but provides a camping option for the homeless people who for weeks have set up their tents near the Metrolink train station. The ordinance addresses immediate threats to public safety, health, and welfare.
The nearby storage lot is less than a half-acre and allows members of the homeless community to pitch their tents at a cost to the city of about $50,000. The concrete ground is covered with decomposed granite and the area has lighting and fencing. There are security cameras, trash service and bathroom facilities. The city will provide a security guard for nighttime supervision.
The lot has views of the Pacific Ocean and is across the street from a new single-family home development.
Friday’s move took place despite the threat of litigation and as lawyers representing San Clemente and two other cities in south Orange County filed a motion to recuse the judge in a federal lawsuit filed in February on behalf of homeless people.
On Wednesday, Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer representing the homeless clients and a nonprofit group in the lawsuit before U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, threatened to seek an injunction if San Clemente moved forward with its relocation plan.
And while the relocation unfolded at North Beach on Friday, a motion was filed in federal court on behalf of San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Aliso Viejo to have Judge Carter removed from presiding over the civil rights lawsuit naming those three cities along with Dana Point, Irvine, Mission Viejo, and the County of Orange.
The lawsuit argues that anti-camping ordinances and other laws in the five south county cities criminalize homeless people.
In asking for Judge Carter’s recusal, the motion filed on Friday argues that Carter cannot remain impartial because of his past actions in a related 2018 homeless lawsuit that has led to settlements with several cities in north and central Orange County and the opening of homeless shelters.
Among other criticisms, the recusal motion cites Carter’s “extensive personal fact-gathering and investigation” in the 2018 case and contends that, in seeking a global settlement that emphasizes opening shelters around the county, the judge “crossed the line from adjudicator to advocate.”
The judge has also leveled “sharp criticism” at the five south county cities, according to the motion, “warning that the cities ‘don’t want’ to put him in the position of writing judicial decisions.”
Read the motion for recusal
San Clemente has been wrestling with the idea of opening a shelter for the past few years.
On Friday, more than 100 residents gathered in North Beach to watch the move. Orange County Health Care Agency staff and city officials walked the parking lot and stopped at tents reminding the homeless inhabitants of the city’s new ordinance.
Officials from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, on Thursday, had notified the homeless and the city posted notices in the parking lot the same day. About nine deputies from OCSD were on hand Friday to monitor the move.
At noon, city staff drove trucks through the parking lot and picked up belongings. Personal items including tents, boxes and clothes were photographed. Each homeless person signed forms giving city officials permission to move their possessions. Once items were loaded, the city provided a van to take people to the new location.
Residents cheered and applauded as the caravan of vehicles drove from the parking lot.
“I think it’s a good day if we eliminate this from North Beach,” said Gene James, a San Clemente resident and recent City Council candidate. “We can’t continue to allow this to fester. It’s going from a public safety issue to a health crisis.”
Residents have complained of exposure to public defecation, urination and other unsanitary conditions. They also pointed to drug use and needles lying buried at the beach.
Two weeks ago, more than 200 people packed City Council chambers for an impromptu town hall held by Mayor Pro Tem Dan Bane and City Councilwoman Laura Ferguson, to discuss the homeless situation.
Without a temporary shelter, law enforcement and city officials are required to allow homeless people to sleep in public areas, following the recent Martin v. Boise decision which ruled 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.
On Thursday, deputies responded to North Beach after a fight broke out between two homeless men. Witnesses reported to OCSD that one man was so brutally attacked that he lay unconscious in a pool of blood. He was later taken to a nearby hospital where he underwent surgery.
“I’m thinking this is an important first step,” said Lisa Edone, a 20-year San Clemente resident. “I’m glad people will avail themselves of some of the resources the city is offering. But, there are a number of people who say they don’t want to go. My concern is, where will they go?
Duane (Gibson) Nichols, a Navy veteran and one of three homeless people named in the lawsuit against San Clemente, the four other cities and the county, removed his tent but chose not to take offers from city staff to move his belongings. He said he’s been working with county health officials and hopes to get into some sort of permanent supportive housing.
“Nobody knows what the rules are going to be in the new spot,” he said. “I came here because I like the area. I didn’t come looking for a shelter. If I don’t like it, I’ll go to the campground and camp.”