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.

  • Sisu54

    OC DPW and California Coastal Commission and the state of California are violating President Carter and Obama’s FEMA floodplain, floodway Acts, the Federal Clean Water Acts, Federal and State Stormwater rules, regulations and laws by allowing non-permitted developments in the resource area.

    The ACLU which usually sues local governments for Clean Water violations are out of control and pushing to allow the point and non point pollution of the river to continue and worsen.

    Non-profits like the ACLU and Donate Cars for the homeless along with professional paid agitators are using the homeless to pull in thousands and thousands of dollars in donations to support their executive level staffs and employee benefits.

    Most non profits involved in helping the OC homeless have millions and millions of assets but don’t spend any money on actually helping the homeless.

    The county has thousands of acres of land they can relocate these folks to.

    Look for the EPA or US Army Corp of Engineers to issue a legal consent decree to the county DPW to move the homeless out of the resource area.

    Lots of folks on the river are choosing to party, hang out and do drugs. I feel sorry for those who are actually homeless due to circumstances and not choice.

    Too bad all the non profit fat cats are making money off the poor. More public pain for private gain!!!!

    • OCservant_Leader

      You make valid points. I agree with you, I don’t want an encampment in an environmentally sensitive area either. BTW The BOS don’t give a flying duck about ANY of the laws you cite.

      However, local law enforcement directed all the homeless to go there. (My guess this directive came from the County)

      They had no where else to go. Did the County Identify an alternative site?? No.

      So here we are. Another poorly thought out strategy from the County of Orange.

      All anger needs to be directed at those paid to manage these Public Health/Safety Issues.

      The OC BOS should be sued for Abrogation of Duty.

  • Thanks for the great conversation and the shout-out, Norberto! I’ve been quoting you all over town. But Sunday’s delivery of items for the riverbank residents wasn’t the result of my Facebook post but the work of these good folks:

  • Greg Lamon

    Nelson is trying to sell a worn out excuse of funding limits, while political leaders in other parts of So. Cal have displayed real leadership by proposing tax increases to fund homeless services. Orange county has been playing the tune of being under-equity in the flow of money from Sacramento for over 30 years now. And, now that the bankruptcy debt is paid off it is no excuse at all. You may remember that in the last budget cycle the Supervisors had extra money they used to fund a lot of fluff, like an events coordinator so the Supervisors would have well planned ribbon cutting events to go to.. It is not about lack of money, it is about lack of political leadership plus no one being able to figure out a solution that voters will accept for this nation-wide social calamity, including crusading editorialists.

  • LFOldTimer

    Tax revenues for all these local governments must be at an all time high with the property value bubble in OC. There’s no reason why the county and cities can’t pool a fund to help the homeless. I don’t mean a give-a-way or freebie program. Why not a jobs program like Anaheim adopted? $9/hr. meals and a place to sleep at night. Put these folks to work and give them a reason to get up in the morning. If Anaheim can do it so can the other municipalities.

    I thought this was the reason the county hired the well-paid homeless czar. To coordinate programs that help the homeless. What’s she been doing? Could we see her work schedule?

    And please – no more ‘End Homelessness’ committees. All they did was produce lots of hot air and more administrative costs. The county should go talk to the leaders in Anaheim and follow their lead.

    Oh, and where the h*ll is Rusty Kennedy???

    • David Zenger

      “Oh, and where the h*ll is Rusty Kennedy??? Writing up another ‘hate crimes’ report and creating more divisiveness between the races?”

      He gets his $ from the County and from the cops, so he will never take a stand that will offend either.

      • LFOldTimer

        In all the blogs and articles I read about the homeless problem in OC I haven’t seen CEO Rusty Kennedy’s name mentioned even once. Why is that? Shouldn’t the homeless problem be a primary concern for the OC Human Relation’s agency? Rusty has a whole army of Human Relation Specialists working for him. Why aren’t they down on the riverbed using their dispute resolution skills to build a bridge between the homeless community and the county? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? How much are we paying these people? How much are we paying Rusty? What are we getting for our money other than an annual hate crime report? A hate crime report doesn’t bring anybody together. It just makes people mad at one another and probably perpetuates more hate crimes.

        Where are you Rusty? The homeless need your services!

  • OCservant_Leader

    OC BOS now “throwing rocks at the homeless”…

    Well said Norberto.

    (I wonder which OC Public Work’s Manager had this idea as his P4P goal?)

    I still want to see the statement from the MIA “Homeless Czar” & please point to what page of my “Ending Homelessness by 2010/(scratch) 2020 (delete) report the County spent $100k’s developing?

    This is just BAD public policy.

  • David Zenger

    We need a czar. Oh, wait…

    • kburgoyne

      Please, can we have no more “czars” and no more “wars on”. I’d be nice to change from using soundbites to using neurons.