COSTA MESA, Calif. — Army veteran Don Matyja was getting by all right on the streets of this city tucked in Southern California suburbia until he got ticketed for smoking in the park. Matyja, who has been homeless since he was evicted nearly two years ago, had trouble paying the fine and getting to court — and now a $25 penalty has ballooned to $600.
The ticket is just one of myriad new challenges facing Matyja and others living on the streets in Orange County, where a number of cities have recently passed ordinances that ban everything from smoking in the park to sleeping in cars to leaning bikes against trees in a region better known for its beaches than its 30,000 homeless people.
Cities have long struggled with how to deal with the homeless, but the new ordinances here echo what homeless advocates say is a rash of regulations nationwide as municipalities grapple with how to address those living on their streets within the constraints of ever-tightening budgets. The rules may go unnoticed by most, but the homeless say they are a thinly veiled attempt to push them out of one city and into another by criminalizing the daily activities they cannot avoid.
There’s been a sharp uptick in the past year in the number of cities passing ordinances against doing things on public property such as sitting, lying down, sleeping, standing in a public street, loitering, public urination, jaywalking and panhandling, said Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“It definitely is more pervasive and it is more adversarial. I think in the past we found examples of it but it’s not simply just growing, but it’s growing in its severity and in its targeted approach to America’s un-housed,” said Donovan, who compared it to a civil rights issue.
“There’s the whole notion of driving while black. Well, this is sitting while homeless.”
Denver earlier this year voted to make urban camping illegal despite protests from homeless activists. Philadelphia banned feedings in public parks in June but the ordinance was put on hold the following month after homeless groups sued the city. And there’s a new curfew for pets that help their owners beg on the Las Vegas Strip.
Matyja, in Costa Mesa, has gotten multiple tickets for smoking in the park where he camps out since the law took effect earlier this year.
“When I was in the military, I’m golden. When I was working, I was golden. When I’m not working and I’m out here, I’m a piece of garbage as far as these people are concerned,” said Matyja, 50, as he walked past a row of neatly manicured lawns on a sweltering day. “They figure if they don’t see you, then the problem don’t exist and then they can say, ‘We don’t have a homeless problem.’”