The Orange County Transportation Authority plans to install a perimeter fence and keycard-controlled pedestrian gate at the Newport Beach Transportation Center in response to the public outcry about homeless camping.
During the Newport Beach Homeless Task Force Meeting on Tuesday, City Manager Grace Leung said anyone lingering within the new fence after 11:15 p.m. will be escorted off the property until the gate reopens at 5 a.m.
Councilman Brad Avery, who chaired the task force meeting because Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neil is on vacation, said the city will actively work to prevent homeless individuals from camping overnight on adjacent public and private property.
Bids for the fence’s construction, pedestrian gate, and related grading are due to OCTA by Sept. 10. It wasn’t immediately clear when construction might start.
These improvements are the result of ongoing talks between officials from Newport Beach, OCTA, and the Irvine Co. The announcement by task force member and former mayor John Heffernan earned applause from the audience at Tuesday’s meeting.
OCTA spokesman Eric Carpenter said his agency has been in discussions with the city for more than a year and a half regarding possibly fencing the NTC.
“These discussions are ongoing and no decisions have been made,” Carpenter said. “To clarify, what was issued was not an emergency action. This was an invitation for bids to get a better idea of what building a fence would cost, if all parties – OCTA, the city and Irvine Company – agree to move forward.”
Heffernan also shared a plan to replace the existing vegetation around the NTC with drought-tolerant landscaping that won’t provide shade to the homeless.
Newport Beach resident Teresa Hernandez was among the angry residents demanding that the Task Force take immediate action to remove the homeless encampment from the NTC. Considering the amount of taxes homeowners pay and a highly educated city staff, Hernandez said she’s astounded with the lack of progress on removing the tents.
“I’m trying to be compassionate, but I’m a taxpayer and I have my own family to worry about,” she said.
Although the Task Force includes three council members, it’s limited to making recommendations to the Newport Beach City Council. That seven-member panel has the ability to change city policy and appropriate tax dollars.
“Will (O’Neill), Joy (Brenner) and I are committed to moving this forward,” Avery said. “It’s clear to me, and I think to Joy, that we need to see what we can do in the shorter term. We really don’t have the luxury of spending a year trying to figure this out.”
One resident who didn’t share his name offered a hardline approach to the homeless encampment.
“Why wouldn’t the right solution be to find that remote piece of property in Newport Beach, build a fence around it, put military-style tents in there, and then escort the homeless population to that site and then wait six months and see if we have the same problem,” he said.
Providing outdoor shelter is an approach being implemented by some cities, however, because of ambiguities in recent court decisions, the cities that have taken this approach have all been sued, City Attorney Aaron Harp noted in an email on Wednesday.
“Cities cannot force a person to live in an outdoor shelter,” Harp continued. “While a person who refuses to go to an adequate shelter may be arrested, Orange County jails do not have the capacity to house people arrested for violating camping ordinances, which means a person arrested for this violation is typically booked and released.”
The city’s Task Force is looking at a “comprehensive approach to this problem,” which includes public input, Harp added.
Heffernan argued the process of finding, acquiring, and permitting a temporary shelter is much more complicated than many community members realize. A touch of sarcasm crept through as Heffernan talked about the suggestion of opening a shelter near John Wayne Airport.
“I’m sure if you’re a neighboring property owner like me, I would surely appreciate a homeless shelter on Campus Drive where it’s zoned,” Heffernan said. “This is not a simple solution and it’s going to take time. It’s going to take a lot of heat from the electeds.”
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in city of Boise v. Martin that cities cannot enforce their anti-camping ordinances unless they make shelter available to the homeless. That decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.