County Used Rock Riprap, Sand to Make Santa Ana Riverbank “Less Desirable for Occupation”

County of Orange

Before and after photos of a project Supervisor Shawn Nelson requested near the Santa Ana riverbed, as depicted in "before" and "after" photos by a county public works official.

A county Public Works executive gave a presentation to a civil engineers’ organization in December claiming the use of rocks in areas of the Santa Ana riverbed where homeless people camped was intended to make the area “less desirable for occupation,” according to materials on the group’s website.

The presentation by Phil Jones, former manager of the design division of the Orange County Public Works Department, conflicts with court documents in which the county only said the riprap was for flood control.

Riprap has moved two homeless camps from the Santa Ana riverbank, one by the Honda Center last year and the other this year along the 57 Freeway from roughly the 22 Freeway to Angel Stadium. The Honda Center riprap was requested by Supervisor Shawn Nelson, according to county emails.

Homeless people who previously camped along the 57 Freeway section of the riverbank moved this year across the river after their camping areas were covered in huge piles of riprap.

Public Works spokesman Shannon Widor said Monday Jones’ presentation is “kind of taken out of context” if it is connected to homeless camps and said the riprap was used “to help control erosion” which can be caused by “any individual member of the public.”

Asked whether the county was using riprap to deliberately remove homeless people from flood control property, Widor said “No, it’s either for projects we’ve had several months ago like the storage area… and then other areas it’s to cover the area to prevent any further damage.”

Widor said the county had seen several people digging trenches and tunnels, and carving steps and holes to put water in on flood control property.

“It’s not specifically for encampments,” Widor said. “It’s not so much focused on the individual, it’s the action of individuals out there where we’re seeing damage of our flood control slopes.”

According to Jones’ presentation slides on the website of the Orange County branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE), the Orange County Public Works Department used “rock riprap revetment to control erosion and make previous encampment area less desirable for occupation.” Jones did not include the cost of buying and installing the riprap.

A lawsuit filed against the county in February by the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center alleged civil rights violations against homeless people living on the riverbed, including surrounding some with fences on flood control property that is “totally sealed off from entering or exiting.”

In the county’s defense, Kevin Onuma, deputy director in charge of the “Flood Control Channel and Maintenance Security Project” which placed the rock riprap and sand in the area homeless people inhabited along the riverbank next to the 57 freeway from Orangewood Avenue to just south of the 22 Freeway, claimed the riprap was “important for the [Orange County Flood Control District] to be ready to respond to erosion,” according to court documents.

In December, the engineers’ organization invited Jones to speak about the “impacts of homeless in the County’s flood control facilities,” according to their website.

According to the ASCE, the presentation was “well received by more than 80 attendees.”

The site states Jones discussed factors contributing to homelessness, its impact on the facilities and environment and the steps the department has taken to address the situation, among them the use of rocks to make the area “less desirable for occupation.”

The presentation, which is available on the ASCE’s website, documents the issue of homelessness in Orange County and includes numerous photos of homeless encampments across the flood control channel. The slides show encampments inside the Anaheim, Westminster, Santa Ana, and Stanton flood channels, debris, including biohazardous waste and hypodermic needles, which could travel downstream during rains, and marijuana plants grown on flood control facilities.

The presentation points to what it calls public safety issues along the channels with multiple images of graffiti, broken drug paraphernalia, and stolen credit cards and bikes.

Jones’ presentation shows “steps that the County of Orange and OC Public Works are taking to deal with these issues” by posting updated signs with penal codes enforceable by police, using fences to stop people from entering flood control areas, and placing sand and riprap.

On page 119 of the presentation there are side-by-side photos of a former homeless encampment across from the Honda Center and a similar looking area covered with rock riprap. Above the photos are captions: “Use of rock riprap revetment to control erosion and make previous encampment area less desirable for occupation.”

Onuma previously discussed the use of those materials as “important” to responding to erosion in a declaration to the court in the Tammy Schuler v. County of Orange lawsuit, but did not mention the use of rock and sand to make areas “less desirable.”

Onuma said in court documents from the case that materials “will be used to perform both scheduled and emergency maintenance on flood control channels under the jurisdiction of [the Orange County Flood Control District].”

“The use of this area for the storage of rip rap and sand is important for the OCFCD to be ready to respond to erosion of channel walls, other emergencies and flooding, especially considering the recent rains and maintenance issues,” a court document in the Schuler case earlier this year reads.

Tim Houchen, advocate for the homeless and formerly homeless, said in an Aug. 23 interview the county’s decisions to remove homeless people from the riverbed “cost taxpayers money, and have no effect really.”

“Yes you’ve displaced them from one place only to go to another place,” he said.

According to Jones’ voicemail, he retired from the County of Orange as of March 30. He did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him.

According to the ASCE’s website, Jones worked for Orange County for 30 years as an engineering manager, design engineer and construction inspector and is a registered civil engineer in California, Oregon, and Arizona.

Widor said Orange County Public Works typically gives presentations to ASCE’s members about once a year.

The issue of homelessness in Orange County has been widely debated recently, with the county settling two lawsuits alleging civil rights violations and another filed earlier this month.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Kevin Onuma, in court documents, referred to riprap placed across from the Honda Center. The riprap he was referring to is along the Santa Ana riverbank parallel to the 57 Freeway between Orangewood Avenue and the 22 Freeway. Voice of OC regrets the error.

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.
Jose Ochoa is a Voice of OC intern. He can be reached at joseochoa.voc@gmail.com.