People of the Riverbed

Mariah Castaneda for Voice of OC

Denise Lindstrom Le Blanc, who has been homeless for two years, now calls the bed of the Santa Ana River home.

It is Orange County’s other homeless encampment.

While the ever-growing population at the Santa Ana Civic Center is the most visible example of the county’s failure to adequately address homelessness, as many as 500 people now live in the bed of the Santa Ana River.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has been sounding alarm bells for more than a year; and last winter, with the threat of El Nino-fueled storms looming, county officials pledged more resources to alleviate the situation.

Yet the only noticeable change along “Skid River,” as it was characterized to The Orange County Register, has been the increase in the number of people who live there.

Voice of OC intern Mariah Castaneda recently brought her camera to the riverbed to get a glimpse of what life is like for those who call it home. Here is what she found:


Emmanuel Sanchez is one of many residents who collect water from the river. He claims he won’t drink the water but uses it to bathe, cook and clean. Sanchez has lived in the same spot for three years, and during that time has watched the riverbed neighborhood swell.



Michelle Melgar and her boyfriend Victor Hins have spent the last three summers illegally camping in the riverbed. Melgar reports that more people are moving to the community “in the sand. It used to be that Melgar knew everyone that lived near her. But lately she says it’s getting harder to keep up with the new faces.

Melgar, a mother of two, had once been a secretary for an elementary school and church. Hins is an ordained minister who once had a painting and construction clean-up business.

Both Melgar and Hins claim to have arrest warrants out against them for “illegally camping,” which is the official violation police charge homeless people with when they sleep outside. Melgar says she’s been jailed in the past for illegally camping.

“This isn’t camping,” Melgar said with a small laugh. “I have camped with my kids, this isn’t it. This is hard”


Under the tunnel, there is a small neighborhood of makeshift homes. A clothesline hangs washed undergarments and dwelling actually has a faux grass lawn Rows of stones and sand mounds act as fences between neighbors.

Denise Lydstrom, has been homeless for two years, now calls the bed of the Santa Ana River home.

Denise Lindstrom Le Blanc has been homeless for two years. She suffered a stroke in February and is now bound to a wheelchair and needs assistance moving from her couch to the chair.

Others in the riverbed community come to her aid — one woman acts as a caretaker, and another looks out for her safety. The Laguna Hills native is currently applying for federal Section 8 housing and hopes to have a home soon.

Mariah Castaneda is a Voice of OC intern and student in UC-Irvine’s literary journalism department. She can be reached at

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  • David

    Ever hear of the movie called Soylent green? There is a solution for this problem…

  • Thomas Simmons

    When I go to UCI and pass by the SA river, I have seen the growing numbers of people above the river bed. But relatively recently I have also seen the numbers of homeless “living” in the riverbed. I had thought, before it started raining, that if it started raining, it’s not going to be nice for them. I feel for them.

  • Max Perde

    These low life’s need to either get a job or be institutionalized. Jesus, I guess this the real hope and change that Obama administration wanted. Now we look just like France. GET A F’ing JOB!!!

  • Jacki Livingston

    This is a wonderful story, Mariah. Well done. Sadly, section 8 is no help. I have been on the waitlist for ten years. The Housing Authority is as crooked as the rest, handing out to friends and family, while the rest of us wait and wait and wait.

  • Jacki Livingston

    This is a wonderful story, Mariah. Well done. Sadly, section 8 is no help. I have been on the waitlist for ten years. The Housing Authority is as corrupted as the rest of the agencies, handing out vouchers to friends and family, while those not in the ‘family’ sit and wait…and wait…and wait.

  • Rose Tingle

    John, I give money or food to people begging outside some of the stores on a regular basis. it upsets my stomach and makes me angry at the same time, to think this wealthy county allows this issue to continue. In my opinion, it is a community problem. i have personally and respectfully asked of several large corporations for help and have been met with silence. At least I tried. This county has several Fortune 500 corporations. Yes, I’m sure they get asked often for assistance, but it doesn’t appear that any corporations have helped either with the homelessness of human beings or homeless animals. South Coast Plaza makes more money than any other shopping mall in the entire U.S. Good for them, but it appears for many people, its never enough, when will it ever be enough, probably never!!!
    It doesn’t appear the “trickle down” economics is working in Orange County. Perhaps if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it. Perhaps if we ALL joined in the effort, cities, counties and corporations, we could make this a better county for EVERYONE. “Each man should give what he has decided
    in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves
    a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).

  • Danny Somerville

    My name is Danny Somerville I have been working in the riverbed and now all of these people personally for the last 4 years I have a Ministry with Placentia Presbyterian Church called the for him Ministry we have been taking clothes and food medical supplies in offering drug programs housing and employment training so far to this date we have over a hundred out of the riverbed in Housing employed and off of drugs or alcohol all it takes is someone to care me and my daughter I’ve been doing this on our own if two people can do so much imagine with many could do you can contact me through Placentia Presbyterian Church the for him Ministry.

    • Jacki Livingston

      I would love to help, I am a former caseworker for the County, so I could help people get signed up for aid. I am also really good at getting donations?

  • Stepan Kuroga


  • buzzookaman

    Tiny houses can help

    • David Zenger

      You know, I’ve been proposing the “think small” approach for years and nobody cares. It’s as if one’s concern is measured by how much money is spent (or seen to be spent) on big plans and projects.

      I saw a prefab plastic shed with a gabled roof and windows in the parking lot at the Home Depot in Brea last winter. It was selling for $500 or so. And guess what? Some homeless person had taken up residence therein – at least for a while. These can be used, washed out, and ultimately recycled.

      Now if the $10MM the County proposes to spend (waste) on a big permanent shelter (bronze plaque with Superviors names featured prominently) were spent on immediate attention and cheap yet effective shelter so much could be done to help people.

      I keep hearing the “house the homeless” mantra which means to purse the lengthiest and most expensive strategies first.

      • LFOldTimer

        The County spent over 3x’s that amount ($35,000,000) for a shelter to house our furry cousins in Tustin and forced all contract cities to pony up sizable lump sum amounts for it’s construction while the cities have $zero$ equity in it. ha. Go figure. Anaheim and Huntington Beach both paid up front sums in the 7 figures – as a condition of keeping their animal care services. The County wanted an up front $4m figure from Garden Grove and the city told them to take a flying leap. I think Anaheim fronted $7m. And get this – on top of the lump sum payment the contract cities still have to submit their quarterly payments for shelter rent and field services (big, big bucks) with no ceiling on those payments in the 10-year contract. Next time you cross paths with the Anaheim council be sure to thank them for negotiating such a killer contract for the taxpayers of Anaheim. With trusted city officials negotiating contracts like that who needs any stinking watchdog organizations?
        The point is they had to pull teeth out from the roots to get the County to move on a $10m homeless shelter and where did they put it? At the happiest place on earth – Anaheim. And after it’s built and ready for occupancy I bet there will still be 100’s of homeless living at the Civic Center unless Michele Martinez declares martial law and makes sitting on the library grass illegal.
        If you think the homeless population is bad today – wait 5 years. Homeless campgrounds will be packed full with former real estate brokers and agents.

        • Rose Tingle

          “It would be better to be born a dog or a cat in the OC.” Hardly! 7669 were killed at the county shelter in 2015 alone.

      • Jacki Livingston

        I agree with you, David. The tiny house, particularly rehabbing shipping containers or concrete pipe like in Europe, is a fantastic way to create self sustaining housing for those in need. Using solar power, and community gardens, as well as recycling, we could do something revolutionary in the area of ending homelessness.

        The fact is, we have millions of empty structures in this country. It isn’t like we don’t have roofs. We just need to stop talking about the conventional methods and reach for better ways, and your ideas are really good.

  • chubbers

    For 20 plus years I was married to an abuser.
    One of his favorite phrases he would tell me was, “You will be a fkn bag woman, You will be out in the streets and worthless without me btch” while kicking and hitting my head on the bath tub.
    I believed it, after 20’years used as a punching bag it was a hard thing to get over.

    I am not homeless but to this day everywhere I go, I Scope out places where I may live should I become homeless. I visualize where I may be able to bathe or what trash receptacle would have the best harvest.

    Many adult children live with parents, or rent rooms but regardless everyone in my opinion are on a balancing act and could easily fall into the Santa Ana River.

    Nobody is immune from the state of homelessness, it can happen to good or bad people, children, whole families.

    • Jacki Livingston

      I totally relate, and kudos to you for your honesty. I spent years being on the edge of homelessness, couch surfing, sleeping on friends’ floors, motels, even the street. When I became a caseworker, I always empathized with my clients, and never judged them, because it takes so little to send anyone into a spiral that can end with life on the street. Keep fighting, sister, we are all in this together.

      • chubbers

        Thank you Miss Jackie! He still wishes me homeless. His latest venture, he changed his 401k to a IRA. By doing that it makes it difficult for me to collect on the QUADRO.
        I will do my best and I am now enjoying life for the first time in years.

        • Jacki Livingston

          I wish I could say that justice will come around to bite him in the behind. But my recent experiences with evil beating good makes me wonder. I lost my career with the county, because I obeyed the law and refused to look the other way at criminal behavior. I am at my own low ebb. But my heart is with you, and my prayers. Just know that you will always have the knowledge that you are a strong woman. Go back to school. Go to Department of Rehab, they will help you. Message me if you ever just need to chat. Know that tough times won’t last, but a tough woman will endure forever. Stand strong, stand proud. You are awesome.

  • Everyone (read politician) pays lip service to the homeless “problem”. Few are actually doing anything about it. Many homeless don’t really want to live anywhere else. Many have psych problems that keep them from making rational decisions. What the city and county should be doing is focusing on immediate, day to day needs such as a clean shower and, for those trying to get back on their feet, counseling. The politicians will continue flapping their gums while the middle and upper class Orange Countians will complain because they don’t want “those people” living in their neighborhood.

    • David Zenger

      Jeff, you are absolutely right focusing on immediate needs first. See my comment, below. The politicians have no solutions other than big ego projects that salve some people’s guilty consciences and give others, like Spitzer, a chance to preen for a camera.

      Why not address the immediate needs first, in a way that is most efficient and cost effective? If you’ve got a temperature of 105° the first thing a doctor does is try to bring down the fever, not solve whatever problem caused it.

      How about paved areas with modular facilities, water and electricity? How about temporary storefront centers that can open and close to fit the mobile and transitory population instead of permanent monuments to politicians?

      Personally, I don’t think there is a solution to all homelessness (thus the nonsense of the “End Homelessness Commission”) – other than, ultimately, incarceration and forced institutionalization for the cases of mental illness or stubborn refusal not to give up the lifestyle; and nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to go there.

      • John Claxton

        Where is that mobile home that the county spent a bazillion dollars on for situations just like this? I hear the Supes and executives are using it for personal usage! What happened to the Homeless Czar that the county allotted money for? Who, what, why, where, when? The answers are sadly not one of our elite elected officials cares! What’s Mayor Pulido done for the homeless? As long as him and his brother (who he got a job at AQMD – or the county equivalent sine they own a muffler shop (where the mayor hasn’t paid his taxes for like 20 years) they qualify as air quality experts. Let’s get all these self serving bums out and put people in that care about the little guy!

      • Jacki Livingston

        I would love to have a truck with laundry and shower facilities that I could drive around and provide help. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a company that makes laundry products and showergel/shampoo items. Maybe get a company to donate clothes, shoes, socks?

        What if someone could take an empty store in an area and build a laundry, with some lockers and a mailbox spot? People could check emails, wash clothes, shower? Corporate sponsors would be a great asset for it.

  • LFOldTimer

    Oh, just read an article in the Register about the Civic Center homeless problem. Since it’s election season it seems that Martinez apparently wants to declare the CC a “public health and safety crisis” so she can impose more police powers to get rid the homeless from public view. Do you folks think this would have happened if Martinez wasn’t in a battle with Do for a Supervisor gig? ha.

    And Do is telling the SA council to rezone the bus terminal for a homeless facility so that the county can open it up to provide for the homeless people.

    So here we go. Another election year. The pols are in high gear. Amazing how fast things start to happen when a seat is up for grabs.

    Your Representative Republic at work.

  • John Claxton

    Mariah, nice story. Shows that these are real people, some looking for real solutions. Section 8 and other workers (healthcare, mental health, eligibility technicians (for food stamps and health care coverage) should be brought to them to get them signed up. Some cities like San Francisco and Portland have even converted trucks into big portable shower stations that they can drive around towns and give people a little dignity back by feeling clean. The county bought a really large piece of property to help the homeless population at the Civic Center. The old bus terminal – 100 yards to the south of where all the current encampment is. However that’s all that’s been done. The locks remain on the gates and doors and no action at all to my knowledge has been done to prepare it. Even the pets gets a new animal shelter. How much more deserving are people! Shameful.

    • LFOldTimer

      ” Even the pets gets a new animal shelter. How much more deserving are people! Shameful.”

      Could you imagine the public outcry and legal battles if the County told the cities that each would have to contribute lump sum payments to finance a new $30 million dollar homeless shelter for humans?

      But that’s exactly what the County did with regard to the proposed animal shelter in Tustin. Some cities were told that they would have to pay millions of dollars for the construction of a dog and cat pound owned lock, stock and barrel by the County. That was one of the basic requirements to obtain animal care services.

      Shouldn’t all cities be responsible for the care of the homeless people – just like for the animals?

      You are entirely right, John. The county’s position implies that the dogs and cats possess more value and are more deserving of dignified living conditions than human beings who live in squalor.

      • turkish4life

        Better than giving $18 million to your buddies at Magnolia to build a new school in Santa Ana that was rejected by the district, then the county but remarkably approved by the State (as if they know what the children and families of OC need) Your buddies over at Magnolia have now delayed the opening of this school built with money squandered from American taxpayers.

        • David Zenger

          All hail the Great and Mighty Gulen! May his beard ever lengthen and his progeny spread across the land!

      • Rose Tingle

        “Outrage on behalf of Cause A does not nullify horror regarding Cause B.
        It’s very possible to be moved to care about more than one thing at a

    • Rose Tingle

      Oh come on. the County animal shelter was 75 years old, it needed replacement. Even at that, Orange county is still far behind neighboring counties. San Diego County has 3 county animal shelters!!! Furthermore, the county is not paying for the new shelter, the contract cities are paying for it and the county is throwing in less than 15%. Preventing the death and suffering of innocent and homeless animals, God’s creation, doesn’t diminish the gravity of other problems in Orange County.

      The problem with your statement is that it suggests there is a hierarchy
      of things we’re allowed to be upset about and no two causes can occupy
      the same amount of space. That in condemning the building of a new animal shelter, we are
      implicitly condoning the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the
      normalization of abortion, global poverty… fill in your own blank. It’s unhelpful to create false choices between them. It’s
      kind of like saying you have to choose between whether you feed the
      hungry or tell them about Jesus. Why can’t we do both?

  • LFOldTimer

    The John and Ken Show had Supervisorial Candidates Michele Martinez and Andrew Do on the radio at separate times recently. The topic was the homeless at the Civic Center. John lit into both of them since nothing is being done to enforce the laws or mitigate the homeless problem.

    I didn’t listen to his Martinez interview but I understand he jumped all over her for not doing what she could as a SA council member to fix the problem, via Santa Ana PD, since the Civic Center is located in Santa Ana.

    I heard the Do interview. John fired him up for not enforcing the food licensing laws through the Health Care Agency – since the unlicensed vendors or food give-a-way programs are attracting more homeless to the Civic Center which is the work site for 17,000 county workers.

    It was pretty obvious that John did not play favorites in his interviews. He wants the problem fixed and all he really got was more finger pointing – Martinez at the County and Do at the City of Santa Ana. Who woulda guessed?

    Very sad that we have politicians who choose to remain impotent on problems that affect so many human lives.

    Be sure to go to the polls on Nov 08 and vote for either Dracula or Frankenstein. More of the same.

    • turkish4life

      Yes you are right the game is rigged for outsiders that are stealing money from the taxpayers of Orange County, namely the Gulen Movement who is opening a delayed new school in Santa Ana that was voted down by the local people, and county. $18 mlllion into the hands of foreign criminals when that money should be used to help American Families and children.

      • David Zenger

        The Great and Munificent Gulen, may he live forever!