Orange County officials have a poor track record of dealing with the homeless crisis in their midst.
Consider, for example, the county’s push earlier this year to evict hundreds of individuals living in the county civic center even though they had nowhere else to go. Officials ordered swaths of the plaza cleared for construction purpose, yet did little to address the lack of shelter or housing facing many of those living there.
Now, county officials are using that same tactic to oust individuals living along the Santa Ana riverbed.
On June 2, county officials moved to conduct routine tree-trimming and grading along the dry Santa Ana riverbed, but again failed to address the humanitarian emergency that exists there—namely, the encampments of individuals who are too poor or disabled to afford housing.
The county gave the people living in these encampments just a few days’ notice that it would begin strict enforcement of ordinances prohibiting camping and storage of personal property on any lands it owns or operates, including the Santa Ana riverbed. Violators, they warned, would be subject to arrest and prosecution.
According to people living at the riverbed, police officers from the City of Orange and county workers who showed up on the morning of June 2 did not provide information about the project, or offer them alternative places to stay.
The ACLU of Southern California sent a letter to Orange County officials explaining that its ordinances criminalizing the act of living outdoors are unconstitutional, given that thousands of people experiencing homelessness in the county have no way to comply.
More than 4,400 people can be found living on the streets of Orange County on any given night, and emergency shelters and transitional housing can only accommodate about half of them. Furthermore, the wait for affordable housing can stretch on for years. This shortage forces thousands — who are too poor or disabled to afford housing — to live outdoors. Yet the county still uses the ordinances to intimidate and displace people.
On June 2, the result was chaos and anxiety for many, including Frank Block. A former construction worker who has lived in the City of Orange his entire life, Block moved to the riverbed after his arm was crushed in a workplace accident.
“Everyone is scrambling,” said Block, 62. “They don’t know what to do. Where do we go? What do we do? That notice is pretty dang official. Now I’m spending all my resources and time just to try to comply, but I don’t know how.”
Block spent nearly 24 hours scrambling to remove his property from the embankment. What little money he had managed to save up was used up renting a truck and a storage unit, he said.
Now, he had nothing to get him through the rest of the month.
Worn out and demoralized, Block’s eyes filled with tears as he watched the county workers move through his former home from his new camping spot under the bridge
“It just pains me to see those trucks,” he said. “The idea that they would take somebody’s meager belongings…come on—somebody needs to step up.”
Instead of ignoring the plight of people living outdoors, harassing them with unconstitutional laws, and pushing them from one place to another, Orange County should get serious about developing desperately needed affordable housing.
It has a 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness that hinges on a “housing first” model, with an emphasis on placing all people who are homeless in safe and affordable permanent homes. Yet, the plan is severely underfunded, mainly because officials have not devoted any county funds to its implementation.
In a recently released report, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness discouraged the forced dispersal of encampments, which does nothing to connect people to lasting solutions, especially housing, intensive services, and health-care support. The Council urges local communities to develop close collaborative relations with people living in encampments, to include them in the planning process for real solutions to homelessness, and strive to meet their needs to the greatest extent possible.
The county and local city governments should follow these recommendations to ensure that they are responding as effectively and humanely as possible to the homelessness crisis in their midst.
Eve Garrow is a homelessness Policy Analyst and Advocate at the ACLU of Southern California.
Jack Day is a legal intern at the ACLU of Southern California and a law student at the University of California, Irvine.
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