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

  • LFOldTimer

    John and Ken at KFI are all over this like a cheap suit. They’re already talking about taking the show down to the river bank in Fountain Valley in support of the homeowners and renters who are having problems with the homeless.

    Shawn Nelson had a great idea. There’s county property in Irvine and Huntington Beach and Santa Ana that they could use that would temporarily accommodate 200 or more campsites each. I am all for helping people who have a desire to help themselves. I am all for providing jobs like Roosevelt created in 1933 per the WPA. Cleaning streets, fixing potholes, removing graffiti, landscaping, etc….. If they need mental health care – then provide it. But if all the homeless person wants to do is stick a needle in his or her arm or leach off the system – then run them outta Dodge.

    Helping the homeless means making them productive citizens. But according to the newspaper and radio accounts – the homeless are causing problems for ordinary working-class citizens who are struggling to survive themselves by working 2-3 jobs, and paying their taxes that keeps society on the tracks. They deserve to live their lives in peace rather than being in the middle of a war with the homeless population.

    The politicians need to do more than what they[‘re doing. While they sit on their hands the problem only gets worse. And the bigger the problem gets – the harder it will be to solve.

    If they can spend $350,000,000 on new government buildings at the Civic Center they can find the loot to put some of these people back on their feet.

    But again – it’s a 2-way road. Those homeless who refuse to help themselves should get thrown under the bus.

    • ProudAmerican9

      Only those who want help and to return to work can be helped. The others just want more hand outs. This is why entitlements, communism and socialism are complete failures. We’re all responsible for ourselves. It’s also why families are to help their own. Many churches also help as they can. But it is NOT the responsibility of the government to take care of citizens – period. This culture needs a huge dose of common sense. This homeless disaster is just a small part of the Obozo legacy and liberal agenda.

  • verifiedsane

    11,000 sign petition to clear homeless from Santa Ana River Trail; state of emergency considered Question: where are they going to move them? This appears to be creating another problem, without offering any viable solution….reality check: It’s not like the ever growing without a stick home population are just going to disappear into thin air…

  • PIFA123

    So they moved downward and are harassing the residents of Fountain valley now. How did this address the problem? Here is what you need to do. First get ICE out there to deport those illegal. Then get the cops out there to run them thru the computer and arrest the ones that are out standing. Then keep doing it over and over. Until the presence of the law makes it damn uncomfortable for them to be there. Hello!!!

  • Tano

    Complants should be directed to Board of Supervisors, Shane Silsby (Director of OCPW), Kalid Bazami (Asst. Director/cheif engineer/OCPW.)

  • Volt Man

    We should lease land in Mexico and send the homeless there!!

  • Paul Lucas

    who thought they did this for anything else?

  • Rain Lane

    They need to do this the entire length of the river trail

    • verifiedsane

      So that they can move into your neighborhood & home? believe it or not…people without a stick home still need to sleep, eat, and defecate…or shall we make that illegal too?

      • Lindsayrlasher

        Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family!!!
        On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four
        weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it

    • Tano

      The upper management (Director, Assistant Director-AKA Engineer) deliberately did this to discourage camping on the Santa Ana river banks. The “Project” is all smoke and mirrors. They should be ashamed of thier lies, as they sleep with 3 digit income.

  • kburgoyne

    Good catch, Jose.

    The FUNDAMENTAL issue here is not really treatment of the homeless. That is a separate related issue to be justifiably debated. The FUNDAMENTAL issue is whether anyone was trying to “avoid” exposure of the homeless aspect of the work to avoid any debate. It is an issue of openness in running OUR government.

    Ultimately it is the citizens of a democracy who have responsibility for the operation of THEIR government. That responsibility cannot be properly exercised if the officials in that government attempt to hide things from the citizen-owners of the government.

    Government officials are forever trying to take actions “in secret” (to varying degrees). Why? Because they do not want to be held accountable to the citizen-owners of that government for taking those actions. Yet it is the citizen-owners of that government who have the ultimately responsibility for that government.

    Did the officials attempt to hide one of the reasons for the work from the citizen-owners of the government? While intent is often difficult to establish, the officials now suffer from taking actions that suggest the possibility.

    Should such actions be taken against the homeless? That is certainly an issue many citizen-owners of our government may wish to debate very possibly from both sides. What is shared by both sides of the debate is officials potentially denied the citizen-owners the right to hold that debate.

    • Lindsayrlasher

      Google is paying 97$ per hour! Work for few hours and have longer with friends & family!!!
      On tuesday I got a great new Land Rover Range Rover from having earned $8752 this last four
      weeks.. Its the most-financialy rewarding I’ve had.. It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it

  • Steve McNally


    This week, the Legislature identified a package of bills to address California’s affordable housing shortfall. The main pieces of legislation included in this package are Senate Bill 2 (Atkins) the “Building Homes and Jobs Act”, Senate Bill 3 (Beall) the “Veterans and Affordable Housing Bond Act of 2018”, and Senate Bill 35 (Weiner). Following months of negotiations, these bills would provide funding sources for the creation and development of affordable housing, and streamline building regulations for developers working on new housing projects. Below is a description of the bills and their effects on local governments:

    SB 2 would create new funding for very low, and low income housing development through real estate document transaction fees, generating nearly $250 million annually. The bill would require that that 50% of the moneys deposited in the fund be made available to local governments, and 50% made available to the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to assist persons experiencing or at risk of homelessness. After January 1, 2019, 70% of funds collected would be distributed to local governments, and 30% would be allocate to HCD to, among other purposes, create mixed income multifamily residential housing for lower to moderate income households. Local governments that do not have a documented plan to expend moneys within five years would have their funds reverted and deposited in the Housing Rehabilitation Loan Fund (HRLF), 20% of the all moneys in the HRLF will be expended for affordable owner-occupied workforce housing housing, and housing related programs.

    SB 3 would authorize the issuance of bonds in the amount of $4 billion. Bond proceeds would be distributed in the amount of $3 billion to fund current housing programs, infill infrastructure financing, and affordable housing matching grant programs. The remaining $1 billion dollars in bond funding would be dedicated to housing purchasing assistance for veterans. SB 3 is focused on funding low income multifamily developments, farmworker housing and low income projects near transit. If this bill proposal were to pass out of the legislature it would appear as an initiative on the 2018 statewide ballot for voter consideration and approval.

    SB 35 would adopt a streamlined By-Right affordable housing approval process. If a developer were to meet State specified planning objective standards, that project would be eligible to receive a streamlined, ministerial approval process for production, and not be subject to a conditional use permit by a local government. If a local government were to not notify an applicant of their approval within a specified time frame, that project would be permitted through the streamlined process. The bill would limit the authority of a local governments to impose requirements on a streamlined development approvals, and impose new housing reporting requirements.

    • David Zenger

      I wonder if the Legislature has ever considered local jurisdictions (and the HCD) actually demonstrating success with the revenue they already have before pitching more billions into “affordable” housing that turns out to be fabulously expensive.