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City crafting new tools to clean up homeless camps
• City attorney believes city can legally protect ‘critical infrastructure’
RR homeless camp
New ordinances being crafted by the city of Ceres are designed to clean up homeless camps such as here along the railroad tracks north of Whitmore Avenue.

The rise of homeless encampments in Ceres prompted the Ceres City Council on Monday to advance two proposed ordinances giving the city authority to clean up camps in certain areas while not treading on individuals’ rights.

Two ordinances were passed on Monday while a third one is in the works.

The two ordinances discussed Monday would add:

• Chapter 7, “Protection of Critical Infrastructure” to Title 6, Health and Sanitation, to the Ceres Municipal Code.

• Chapter 8, Health and Hygiene, to Title 6, Health and Sanitation, to the Ceres Municipal Code that spells out due process to eradicate homeless camps.

A third ordinance, said City Attorney Nubia Goldstein, would repeal an ordinance section dealing with overnight camping in residential, commercial and industrial properties, by adding a Chapter 22, “Camping Within City Limits,” to Title 9, Public Peace, Safety and Morals of the Ceres Municipal Code.

Goldstein cited public health hazards resulting from homeless camps, including trash and illegal dumping which attract rodents, fire hazards and contamination of the surrounding areas, which pose a threat to the public – including the homeless themselves. The ordinances authorize city employees to conduct clean and clear operations and establish regulations for the removal of persons and property in, on, or near critical infrastructure intended to provide public services.

The ordinance provides only the framework while the city will be tasked to define “critical infrastructure.” Goldstein said loosely defined it is “real property or a facility, whether privately or publicly owned, that the city manager designates as being so vital and integral to the operation or functioning of the city or in need of protection that its damage, incapacity, disruption, or destruction would have a debilitating impact on the public health, safety, or welfare.”

Critical infrastructure could include, but not be limited to roads, railroad rights-of way, bridges, canals and other waterways, sewer plants, police and fire stations, drainage systems, where electrical lines and natural gas pipelines run, or public utility easements.

“It’s a big gray area,” said Goldstein as to defining critical infrastructure. “It hasn’t been fully tested in the courts.”

Goldstein said the proposed ordinances are deemed legal under the court case of Martin v. City of Boise which forbids cities from prohibiting camping in public places when there is no practical alternative shelter available. However, cities can enforce ordinances prohibiting camping in public places at particular times or locations as long as due process is given to campers.

Not all five councilmembers were on board. The first ordinance passed in a 3-2 vote with Councilmembers Rosalinda Vierra and James Casey voting no. The second ordinance passed 4-1 with Vierra voting yes and Casey no.

Vierra said the potential list of critical infrastructire “includes pretty much everything … which to me seems like a violation of the Boise case.” She said she couldn’t support the ordinance if it puts the city at risk of a lawsuit.

“What you don’t want to do in implementing an ordinance like this is that you’re just saying critical infrastructure is literally anything and everything,” Goldstein advised.

The Critical Infrastructure Protection Ordinance will declare it a public nuisance for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities, use camp paraphernalia, or store personal property within 25 feet of critical infrastructure, within 25 feet of a vehicular or pedestrian entrance or exit of critical infrastructure, and in portions of right-of-way that are required to clear to first-responders.

The second ordinance calls for the city to provide written notice advising occupants they have 72 hours to clear out before the city commences a clean-up operation – unless conditions are so severe that immediate action is required. 

The ordinance does not prohibit camping on private property with the owner’s consent.

Ceres resident John Warren expressed concern that the new ordinances could push the homeless into residential neighborhoods “and the public’s not going to appreciate that at all.”

Vierra agreed, sharing how the city recently swept the homeless out of containers and homeless persons started camping in Strawberry Fields Park across from her home. “There’s really not much that I am able to do as a resident,” she said.

Mayor Lopez answered her saying: “We just have to keep on it. We can’t ignore the issue but at the same time we can’t allow them to do whatever they want.”

The proposed Health and Hygiene Ordinance outlines that encampments can pose a threat to the public due to the buildup of hazardous waste, illegal dumping, infectious waste, refuse, or solid waste and authorizes the Public Works Department to carry out clean and clear operations after giving a 72-hour notice. Property left at a campsite during the cleanup will be considered abandoned and subject to disposal. However, items that are believed to be temporarily unattended – such a tent left behind while a person intends to return to it – will be collected and stored for up to 90 days so the owner may retrieve them.

“Essentially you’re giving them warning and an opportunity to pack their things and move along and not necessarily coming in on short notice and kicking them out,” said Goldstein.

The new Critical Infrastructure Protection Ordinance and the “Camping within City Limits Ordinance” both comply with the Boise decision since it only prohibits camping within 25 feet of critical infrastructure and in portions of rights-of-way that are required by law to be free of obstruction to first-responders.

Further, the Health and Hygiene Ordinance only authorizes permanent closure of an encampment when there is an existing or expected natural disaster or environmental harm posed by a threat to the health and safety of a camp’s occupants. Ordinances requiring the temporary vacating of an encampment in a public space on a regular basis for public health and safety purposes are also enforceable.

The Health and Hygiene Ordinance outlines the process for “clean and clear” operations. When the city cleans up camps by collecting personal property of occupants, the Constitution’s due process clause requires that the city take reasonable steps to give notice to the property owner. Further, the City must provide owners of taken property the opportunity to retrieve their property for at least 90 days for retrieval by property owners, unless such property is not safe for storage.

The Critical Infrastructure Ordinance only authorizes summary abatement in the limited circumstance where conditions or violations are so severe that immediate action is required to prevent the serious threat of harm. 

Ceres resident Dave Pratt accused the city is treating the homeless “as pariah” and laid the blame on the state’s lack of affordable housing.

“All you’re doing is trying to push them to another area and they just keep moving around in a cycle and you’re not really addressing the problem,” said Pratt. “It’s not just Ceres. It’s every place in California and every other state … you’re not going to get rid of it until you can really address the problem and try to get  these people help.”

Councilman Daniel Martinez asked Ceres Police Captain Chris Perry how the ordinances would impact enforcement. Perry said “we can really use more enforcement, that’s for sure.” Dealing with homeless encampments has meant less time to deal with other code enforcement violations, he said.

Vice Mayor Bret Silveira said the city is already following case law as it clears out homeless camps. He said the ordinances codify and clarify the process in “what we’re trying to do for the community. We’re doing this to help people in those situations … get them services.”

Captain Perry said the city has cleaned up about 80 homeless camps in the past two weeks.

“Make no mistake,” said Perry, “a lot of these are the same people … we’re kind of chasing them at times. We run them out of one location and they just pop up in another location.”

Doing nothing would mean an accumulation of trash and other health hazards.

“The public has been asking for months for something like this to happen,” said Mayor Javier Lopez of the ordinances. “They don’t understand that there was already measures happening. All we did was try to do a little bit better at it. That’s why these ordinances are here today.”

Lopez said at a recent mayors’ meeting in Fresno he learned Los Angeles has 70,000 recorded homeless persons living in the streets.

“It’s a statewide issue,” said Lopez. “I just don’t want to ignore this issue. I don’t want it to be our issue.”

“We seem to be making laws that penalize people, some of them not their fault the way they are,” commented Casey. But he added the difficulty of developing solutions in light of the shortage of housing.

Lopez said he faults the state for the rising problem.

“I hear it all the time ‘there’s no solutions.’ It really does fall on the state. Obviously we should focus a lot on local municipal but it would help if the state could help us out on these issues as well.”

Del Taco homeless dude
A homeless man sleeping in the landscaping strip in front of the Del Taco parking lot on Mitchell Road. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/ Courier file photo