Santana: Is Throwing Rocks the New Homeless Response in OC?

Norberto Santana Jr.

OC Public Works crews on Santa Ana riverbed.

Orange County’s cruel and ugly side was on full display last week as I walked through a cut out section of freeway fencing and into a homeless encampment sandwiched between the Santa Ana riverbed and the 57 Freeway.

There, on the surrounding edges of a small tent city in the shadow of Angel Stadium, county government cranes and trucks were busy, literally throwing rocks at the situation.

It’s the county government’s newest innovation on homelessness response.

OC Public Works…

Instead of continuing to focus existing federal and state health and social service tax dollars directly onto the homeless, county supervisors have opted for the leaf blower approach.

Supervisors first displayed it at the count Civic Center in Santa Ana last year, even before they opened the Courtyard Transition Center that now shelters nearly 500 local homeless, by erecting a series of fences around former homeless areas and calling it part of a construction zone for a nearby public works project.

The approach has had the effect of pushing that population over to the courts and Santa Ana municipal buildings – complicating taxpayers’ ability to use those facilities.

This past week, the approach was rolled out at the riverbed, where the county plans to use the eastern stretch of the river’s banks to store 5,100 tons of rocks and sand, where all the homeless have been living.

The scene got so ugly that by the end of the week, the American Civil Liberties Union was filing lawsuits – arguing to supervisors that homeless people at the site were being put in harm’s way with their actions.

I could see their point, as a small opening in the fence I walked through to enter the camp was sealed up by the time I went to leave. You could see that numerous small openings in the fences – once doorways to the encampment – had been sealed up by fresh sections of fencing.

In addition, local police were patrolling the area and had detained one man while questioning others. To leave the area, people used the nearby bike lanes near the riverbed, which had trucks and rocks moving back and forth. When I left, public works crews asked me to wait while trucks moved back and then let me walk out of the area. No idea how they deal with that all day long as homeless people go back and forth to the campsites, which have largely been dismantled.

Last Thursday, just as the public works trucks were dumping rocks near the homeless, county supervisors convened in emergency session to declare a public emergency, of course connected to flood control, and sat quietly during the steam of outrage over the cruelty of their actions.

“We’re leaving people as no better than dead,” said Santa Ana activist Madeleine Spencer.

Tim Houchen, who was once homeless at the Civic Center and now works on local homeless programs, called the county’s actions “despicable.”

Houchen implored supervisors to approach homelessness more from a community development perspective, noting that taxpayers need to know that public safety and law enforcement are very expensive tools for managing homelessness.

“People are panicking, they are stressed out,” said Lou Noble about the riverbed situation.

Anaheim resident Mike Robbins challenged supervisors directly as Christians, reminding them that 200 of their constituents died on local streets last year.

“We pray for a homeless man on Sunday. And on Monday, we seem to forget all about it,” Robbins said.

“What you are doing is not enough,” Robbins warned, noting that if county officials abruptly move so many homeless people at once they would create “a real mess” at nearby neighborhoods and parks.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson was the only elected official to respond to public concerns.

Three other supervisors – Todd Spitzer, Michelle Steel and Andrew Do – just sat silent.

Yet Nelsons’ explanations didn’t really add up, no matter how much he tried to blame the situation on Sacramento, which shortchanges many counties, like Orange County, on property tax dollars.

Maybe that’s why the others stayed quiet.

There’s no way to explain the cruelty of sending cranes and trucks to dump a bunch of rocks near a ton of mentally challenged people who are already going through the toughest time in their lives.

People like Red, who is 47 and has lived in the encampment for two years. Red suffers from mental illness and says she’s on disability but can’t afford her medications so she gets hyper, which she said prompts local police to ask her if she’s high.

Her and her boyfriend had an apartment in Placentia, she said, but the landlord asked them to leave after he got out of his last stint in jail. He’s now out looking for work.

Ironically, at the campsite, Red said she found true happiness, a solid family network.

Civil society.

“These people are family. Really good people,” she said. “I never got a welcome like that from my real family.”

We need more of a family approach to homelessness rather than just throwing rocks.

A day after I was at the riverbed, I sat down to catch up with John H. Taylor, just elected bishop coadjutor for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and we talked about how such systemic problems like homelessness are better managed when civil society engages, especially with the public agencies and elected officials our tax dollars finance.

After our meeting, Taylor did his own homework and went out to the campsite to get his own information. He then wrote his own Facebook post on what he learned, alerting the broader Christian community to the situation.

And they responded.

His post engaged nearly 100 people immediately and triggered two dozen direct comments about the county action with some commenters even talking about heading to the next county board of supervisors meeting and engaging as well as offering direct aid. The very next morning, volunteers went to the site, offering clothes, blankets and other materials.

Where county supervisors failed to lead, community leaders stepped up.

Civil society.

Correction: Santa Ana activist Madeleine Spencer’s name was misstated in a previous version of this article.