Aly: Arrested for #RiverbedRescue

Last Wednesday, I was arrested for the first time. I was protesting at the “Skid River” encampment, a community of homeless individuals in the Santa Ana riverbed to the north and south of the Chapman Avenue bridge. If you have ever wondered where homeless people in Orange County live, this spot in the city of Orange is one of a number of population centers.

As a lawyer and concerned citizen, I demonstrated against the ticketing, arresting, and destruction of property of inhabitants at the “Skid River” encampment. The county is targeting this Skid River location even though this homeless community has no place else to go.

On February 8, I was taken to jail for protesting. OC Weekly describes my arrest: “Yelling out, ‘This has to stop,’ attorney and Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition director Mohammad Aly was forcefully removed by three sheriff deputies.” As OC Register notes, I was arrested and jailed “on suspicion of misdemeanor obstructing officers and trespassing.”

I met a homeless man named Noel during my 12-hour stay at Central Men’s Jail. The guards ordered us from one holding cell to the next, and my fellow inmates and I proceeded through an eight-hour booking process called the “loop.” Noel, weakened by his disease of alcoholism, struggled through the loop. Noel progressively sobered as the day dragged on and told me of his encounters with law enforcement. He showed me his defibrillator, surgically implanted into his chest to restart his heart. He told me that he has died twice. His hands shook from delirium tremens.

Since my release on bail, I think of meeting Noel and doing “the loop” as I continue my advocacy against the criminalization of homelessness. The homeowners and renters living near the encampments complain about Skid River and criticize #RiverbedRescue. These neighbors of Skid River, like my fellow jail inmates, feel trapped by living next to a homeless population that lessens their quality of life. We must recognize that the Skid River inhabitants are human beings. Brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers. Sons and daughters. And there is no place for them to go.

The Framers of the United States Constitution, the United States Supreme Court, and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals all require that we treat those experiencing homelessness with basic fairness: society should not jail individuals for sleeping on the streets when they have nowhere to sleep and nowhere to live. Orange County and 33 of its 34 municipalities enforce laws that prohibit the homeless from residing on public property; whereas Orange County Community Resources indicates on its website that Orange County currently provides, at best, 1,500 beds for 4,500 homeless individuals.

Orange County should end homelessness by providing permanent supportive housing. Advocates, bureaucrats, and County elected officials agree that Housing First is the answer:

Voice of OC reported last year that Supervisor Do enthusiastically supports and commits to championing a Housing First model: “On the elected front, I have chosen to take on that role, and I’m glad to do it.” Orange County policy favors a Housing First response to homelessness, but the Board of Supervisors has not yet identified a county source of funding for a housing trust fund.

As I told the Voice of OC on February 10: “[The] riverbed isn’t the solution. Housing is the solution.” The Board should: direct staff to report on the feasibility of implementing the Housing First Model, schedule a Board Study Session to discuss implementing Housing First, and invite community members to participate in the discussion. It is time for the Board of Supervisors to do better for our involuntarily homeless, start Housing First, and end criminalization. #ThisHasToStop #RiverbedRescue

Mohammed Aly, Esq. is the founder and director of the Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition. He successfully led a campaign to implement the CalFresh Restaurant Meals Program in Orange County last year.

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