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Striking a balance

Homeless Task Force attempts to come up with new ways to deal with Costa Mesa's burgeoning homeless population.

May 21, 2011|By Lauren Williams, lauren.williams@latimes.com

"We've got a city that cares about the down-and-out, and that's a good thing," Leece said during the May meeting of the task force.

During the recent meeting, Marisa David, a local mom, told the task force of incidents where she and her neighbors were accosted by homeless people and felt unsafe walking in their neighborhood.

David said she drives her daughter to Dover Shores in Newport Beach, where she feels safer instead of walking to Lions Park near her home.

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"I've always felt a little uncomfortable, but when you have a child, it's a completely different ball game," David said. "It's not 'not in my backyard,' but you can't just keep feeding them. You have to do something about it, like assistance programs."

The number of homeless people in town tends to fluctuate. As of last fall, 60 to 150 people were living on the streets of Costa Mesa, according to a count done by Clarke and his students.

An additional 206 people were counted as being "in care" or in the care of shelters or agencies, with 174 of them classified as adults.

Clarke found in interviews with homeless people that, indeed, some come to Costa Mesa because of the available services.

The combination of the service on the city's Westside created a "perfect storm" for homelessness in the area, said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Robert Sharpnack.

Of this area, Lions Park is considered the epicenter. Concern from community members not feeling safe in parks was a large factor in establishing the task force, Smith said.

This year is not the first time the city has established a homeless task force. Another was established in 2005, according to Smith, but it fizzled out. Little action was taken.

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Homeless issues 'not unique'

The task force is looking at examples of how other cities, including Bellevue, Wash., New York and St. Petersburg., Fla., reduced the number of people living on the streets.

St. Petersburg took a strong stance against homelessness, passing laws limiting panhandling, public sleeping and how many belongings people can carry. In 2007, St. Petersburg earned the moniker "city without a heart" when the homeless living in tents were ordered to leave and police ripped and slashed homeless tents, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

"The homeless challenges facing Costa Mesa are not unique," Smith said. "Other cities have dealt with the issue and a large part of our due diligence is to find and recommend the best practices of those cities to make the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars."

Though not having gone that far, two Costa Mesa churches who feed the homeless at Lions Park on Wednesday told the task force they would temporarily suspend the lunches while members examine solutions.

Among other efforts, police are increasing patrols of areas known to have frequent disturbances among homeless people, and are handing out more citations.

They're also talking to liquor store owners about not selling alcohol to people who are intoxicated, and are working closely with veterans' associations and the Orange County Health Care Agency to identify veterans and those with mental-health problems who may qualify for resources.

Sharpnack was quick to point out that these measures are not new. Predecessors in the Police Department had used such measures, but now there is more support from all sides.

"We can't arrest our way out of this problem," Sharpnack said.

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