A View From the Riverbed Homeless Camp as Sheriff Starts Patrols

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Orange County Sheriff's Deputies walk along the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment during the first day of stepped-up patrols on Friday, September 15, 2017.

Orange County’s largest homeless camp, home to hundreds of people living along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium, has a new set of visitors: twice-a-week patrols by a contingent of two dozen sheriff’s deputies and other law enforcement officers.

As the encampment has grown – over 400 people now live there – so has a sense of permanence. The city of tarpaulin tents now includes several carefully-arranged front lawns delineated by rocks and fences of salvaged wood; tarps arranged to shield living areas from prying eyes; and even a neighborhood pet cemetery where people have buried dogs, cats and lizards.

County supervisors and cities that border the river received a deluge of complaints from residents over the past few months, many who reported finding trash, needles and drug paraphernalia along the riverbed. Cyclists said they’ve feared for their safety while biking along the trail. In some spots, there are strong, unpleasant odors, possibly because there are no bathrooms.

Change.org petition by an Anaheim resident calling for enforcement of anti-camping laws on the riverbed garnered more than 13,500 signatures.

That pressure ultimately led to new Sheriff’s Department patrols by two-dozen law enforcement officers, which began last week and will take place every Friday and Saturday. Previously, there were no regular law enforcement patrols of the riverbed encampment.

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies question residents of the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment during the first day of stepped-up patrols on Friday, September 15, 2017.

The deputies’ arrival brought mixed feelings from homeless people and advocates.

Some were hopeful police would do a more thorough job of investigating violence committed against homeless people, including sexual assaults. But there also were concerns the stepped up law enforcement presence was preparation for clearing out the encampment altogether and scattering homeless people into other areas.

“I’m okay if it’s helping us out, not pushing us out,” said 32-year-old Angel Noel, who has been homeless off and on since he was 16. “You don’t want us on the corner, next to your businesses, next to your events. But where do you want us to go?”

The patrol has 24 law enforcement officers – 13 sheriff’s deputies, five sheriff’s investigators, three sheriff’s sergeants, two probation officers, an Anaheim police officer – and two county public health workers, according to Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ray Grangoff.

On Friday, the deputies arrested three people for probation and parole violations, cited one person for narcotics, and spoke with over 100 people at the riverbed, said Grangoff.

On Saturday, there were no arrests, but deputies did issue two additional narcotics citations and spoke with another 50 people, Grangoff said.

County and city officials have also given mixed signals on whether the encampment will be cleared.

Although county Supervisor Todd Spitzer declared in a Sept. 11 TV interview the county would be “closing the riverbed and not allowing people to habitate there,” his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors would not commit to establishing a specific timeline for clearing out the encampment.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim City Council has called the homelessness situation on the riverbed an emergency and pledged to ramp up outreach efforts before eventually clearing out the area, although they have not set any deadlines or earmarked funds for the effort.

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies question Robert Pickens, a resident of the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment.

At the riverbed encampment, rumors spread Friday that law enforcement was planning to clear out the area the next morning. But sheriff’s officials said that wasn’t true, and there were no reports of such an effort actually taking place.

Sheriff’s Sgt. David Sawyer, who was overseeing the patrols on Friday, said enforcement of the riverbed would occur in “phases,” starting with twice weekly assessments of the population.

“Every single media person is asking me about fear and anxiety from homeless people that we are going to go down here and nuke the place,” Sawyer said. “We’re not out there throwing out camping citations.”

He said the Sheriff’s Department would focus on targeting a “criminal element” among the homeless population and “focus on victim crimes.”

“Our ultimate goal is to try to clear out the riverbed. But we’re going to provide services,” Sawyer said.

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

A group of bike riders pass through the Santa Ana Riverbed.

Noel questioned whether those offers for help will fit the actual needs of homeless people.

Noel, who has a dog and wears a “best friend” necklace shaped like a paw print, worries about himself and several other residents with pets who aren’t allowed to stay in shelters.

He compares leaving behind his dog to abandoning a child or significant other.

“I’ve been told that I refuse help because I’m not willing to leave my dog,” Noel said.

He’s not sure where he will go if he needs to leave the riverbed.

“I’m trying not to think about it. I’ve got nowhere to go, no money, and I’ve got to figure how to sustain the both of us,” Noel said.

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC Contributing Photographer

Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies question residents of the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment.

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who obtained a federal court order protecting homeless people’s property at the riverbed, argues there are practical and legal reasons for the county not to clear out the encampment.

Federal court precedent prevents the county from forcing homeless people out when there’s no reasonable alternative for them to go to, Weitzman said as she monitored the situation Friday. And clearing out the riverbed would push homeless people into other parts of the county, she noted.

One in five Californians lives in poverty, the highest rate in the country, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Sacramento Bee reported. 

County and city officials acknowledge part of the problem is a shortage of housing. And while county supervisors officially have a goal of expanding housing and supportive service options for homeless people – existing shelters are essentially full – there have been no commitments lately to follow through on that.

Lacey Piercy, who has been homeless at the riverbed for about a year, said there are some bad apples living along the river but believes that many want housing and would work if they had the opportunity.

She points out that two of her neighbors work at a Ralph’s Supermarket and another works at a gas station.

“If more people gave us a chance, I think we would do it,” Piercy said.

Contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@voiceofoc.org and Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org.

  • In response to the individual that flagged my reply to Pamela9 posted on Sept.19th, I have asked that moderators review the content of my post. I am certain that nothing will be determined as being inappropriate in my comments. I would also add that the content of my comments could be verified for accuracy by following the link that I provided to the supporting documents.
    I am also asking moderators to ban you from participating in future discussions because of the bias demonstrated on your behalf leading to your decision to falsely flag my post as spam and causing my opinions to be silenced for the moment. I am confident that my post will be available again soon publicly in this section.
    Moving forward, I will always respect the opinions of others here even when I do not personally agree with them. However, it is difficult for me not to be judgmental of your personal character based on your actions. Visible homelessness is an extremely complicated subject that requires broad discussion within all members of our communities in order to find solutions that will reduce or even end visible homelessness in the future. Closing your eyes and wishing homeless people would disappear or falsely flagging a post that you do not personally agree with is just not helping anyone.
    Perhaps you sense that you are among a majority of people here in OC that agree with your behavior and approve of your decision to silence this discussion. I would contend that you are not part of any majority at all and that you might reconsider which side you wish to take regarding the issue of homelessness.
    In July 2017, Orange County voters were asked to participate in a survey regarding the issue of homelessness. The results of that study found that issues of poverty, homelessness and affordable housing were the most important issues facing our county with 76% of participants saying that homelessness was a problem and voters across every demographic were in agreement. Most participants said that they see and think about homelessness every day. When asked what they would be willing to do to help the homeless, the majority of respondents said that they would be willing to make donations, volunteer or even agree to paying additional taxes to solve the problem of homelessness.
    It is customary for me to provide links to supporting documents that verify the accuracy of the content in my posts, here is a link to that information in particular.

    https://adobe.ly/2tY8VWG

  • Pamela9

    My apartments had a series of break ins to garages that the police believe is due to the encampment. After reading several articles about this particular encampment, I am hopeless that this is ever going to be solved since many of the homeless interviewed (article by NCB) worked only part time and earned below poverty level BEFORE they got homeless and many stopped looking for jobs. For those that are not disabled, would they work if any jobs were provided to them to get off the streets or do they intend to continue living on the street until the end? Even in this article, a 32-year-old has been on and off homeless for half of his life since age 16 – what are the chances of being more homeless than not in the future? I believe quite high. Will our cities and counties and our state have enough resources to help those people off the streets, and then would they remain off the streets or return to homelessness shortly afterwards? And out of curiosity, is there any study to indicate how many of those homeless are undocumented? I am curious as to whether the million or so of undocumented people in California end up homeless or are these all Americans?

    • The answer to your question regarding the number of homeless people at the riverbed being undocumented is almost zero. A recent survey conducted over a two mile stretch between Ball Rd. and Chapman Ave. indicated that there are currently a total of 422 homeless people living in that survey area. 12% are to have come here from outside of the county. 26% are former residents of Anaheim and the remaining 62% came from another city in OC besides Anaheim.
      You really don’t see many migrant Latinos in local homeless encampments because it is characteristic of Latino culture to help one another. So, if a Latino family member or a friend experiences a financial hardship, then they have a kind of built-in safety net within their community that helps out. Have you ever seen Latino men hanging out in a park or congregating in some area of a city? These guys actually have places to sleep at night, they just aren’t allowed to hang-out at the house all day when they should either be working or looking for work. When it’s dark they go inside for the night. I always wonder how many of these guys are living in garages spread all over cities like Anaheim.
      You mentioned that many homeless people worked only part-time or earned below poverty level wages prior to becoming homeless. This is the exact issue regarding homelessness that the general public refuses to acknowledge. Most people living in OC are very aware of the growth of visible homelessness in recent years. You would have to live under a rock not to see it. The greatest increase has been over the past decade and coincides with the increasing disparity between median income and median costs for rent. Wages and the cost of housing have been going in opposite directions for some time which accounts for the increase in numbers of visibly homeless people on our streets. Until we begin to close that gap between wages and affordable housing we must only expect that these numbers will continue to climb in exponential proportion.
      Law enforcement as a solution is mute. If rounding up all of the homeless and putting them in jail or shipping them elsewhere were viable solutions to the county and our cities, don’t you agree that it would have already been done?
      The residents in OC better wake up and start holding local municipalities responsible for the homeless issue and stop expecting that the homeless will go elsewhere or disappear at the snap of a finger. Todd Spitzer spoke before Anaheim City Council last week and said the county had in excess of $750M to address this problem. Why does he have to go all the way to Anaheim to deliver this message when he could just tell everyone from his seat on the BOS?
      These people have one story to tell you and your neighbors and a different story for another neighborhood down the street. But, they don’t tell anyone about the UCI Study on the cost of homelessness in Orange County and key findings that show that providing supportive housing to persons experiencing homelessness is less expensive to taxpayers than leaving them on the streets. Here’s a link to that study
      https://adobe.ly/2qAvA9l

  • Sheila

    This mess is the fault of the county for not reinforcing the no camping law from the beginning!!!

    • What good does any enforcement of camping laws do? Perhaps someone will spend a few days in jail, but where are they supposed to go when they are released? Law enforcement only perpetuates the cycle of homelessness. The only proven method of ending homelessness is a policy adapted by the federal government called “Housing First.” http://www.hope4restoration.org/housing_first.html
      The feds require that Housing First policies be adopted by municipalities as a condition for receiving federal aid for homelessness. OC has been given more than $250M in federal aid over the past 20 years but has failed to execute the Housing First model.

      • Pamela9

        Tim, thank you for explaining it and I do hope they do get help. I do not believe we can arrest everyone and also chasing them from one city to another will do exactly nothing and they are Americans so this is their country too. Affordable housing would be nice, maybe focusing on smaller apartments and studios since many may be single. And I do hope something is done soon before the problem explodes exponentially.

        • I am a formerly homeless man having lived at the Santa Ana Civic Center between 2011 until 2015 when I was placed in supportive housing. It has been such a blessing to both my wife and myself and we are so grateful for the opportunity of housing as a solution to our own homelessness. We feel that this opportunity is nothing short of a miracle.
          It is simply magnificent to watch my wife be a real-life grandma and the silly kids love to visit grandma’s house. That was not possible until we were given help to get back into our own place.
          I experienced some health issues related to my homelessness. Housing has provided for me a healthier and more stable environment and has lead to improvements regarding my health.
          I am permanently disabled but I stay very busy giving back to the community by helping to provide solutions for homelessness. My perspective is one that requires any solution must benefit not only persons experiencing homelessness, but must also benefit our communities that have been severely impacted by homelessness. Helping to provide information and listening to and addressing the concerns of the community at-large is part of my daily routine these days.
          There are many other homeless people who could transition back into society just as successfully as we have. Not all of the homeless are drug-addicted derelicts or hardened criminals. Unfortunately, there are not enough housing opportunities currently available for those who want to undergo the life changes that my wife and I have enjoyed.

          • Pamela9

            I am glad you were able to get out of there. I believe that the problem with homeless is that there are endless reasons why people end up homeless so we need custom programs to get people out. It would be easy if it was only alcohol or drugs. I was reading about some developers building microhousing – studios – and I believe that would be easier as a first step to get people out since they would retain their own space with separate kitchenette, bathroom and private room, and many times there are problems when people have room mates and apartments are obviously too expensive. Also helping people find jobs would be nice along with the housing for those that can work so they can stand on their own feet. Hopefully after a while they could transfer into apartments if they can support themselves. And we obviously need to help the disabled that cannot work – they should not end up homeless. I hope something will be done soon. And I do not know how much VA is helping our homeless veterans but I believe they should also set up resources to help the people that served find housing and jobs.

          • Daniel Rivera

            Tim. For a few months I have been running on Saturdays along the Santa Ana River in Fountain Valley, looking for veterans among the homeless, but, helping anybody I can. (Search TinCanMinistries on Facebook.) Admittedly, I used to be a person who would look the other way whenever I saw a homeless person asking for money. Sometimes they weren’t even asking and I would just ignore them. Now I know better. On my runs, I will hand out gift cards to nearby restaurants. As I walk back to my vehicle after my run, I will stop and talk with people. As you mentioned, I found out not all homeless are drug addicts or criminals. Some people are homeless because they lost their job, or medical expenses overwhelmed their ability to pay. I’ve met a couple who want to get into housing so she can visit with her grandchild. I didn’t think handing out gift cards was doing all that much. But I’ve been told that “anything helps”. Even when I apologize for running out of gift cards, the people I visit with say that’s okay, they just appreciate the kindness and prayers. I learn something new about the homeless with each run. The biggest thing I’ve learned: They Are Us, and a little love goes a long way.

  • Our county Behavioral Health Care department greatly contributes to the increasing mentally ill homeless population every year! Their mental health crisis teams (CAT) promotes the use of Restraining Orders against the untreated severely mentally ill being HOUSED by families who can’t control or manage their loved ones. They routinely advise families to obtain R.O.’s (as does NAMI) without offering hospitalization or housing. This practice should be illegal and stopped immediately, especially knowing the patient is generally very mentally/physically compromised when served (in a state of psychosis), and is directly adding to mentally ill homeless population. If you don’t believe this happens, ask law enforcement how many R.O.s were served to those with mental illness last year! Where does BHC department think they will go?? Of course they end up on our streets and in our county jails.

  • No matter how they got there: an inability to self-direct their brain/mental illness, loss of employment, substance abuse, veterans with severe PTSD, early childhood maltreatment and generational poverty, OUR POOR, whom many like to call “the homeless”, in order to stay detached and judgemental, will always need safe ground and a place to go. Being poor should not be a criminal offense! It’s a Public Health issue! How our county responds to the less fortunate makes a statement about ALL of us. This issue is not about money, for the Supervisors have FULL access to any/all of the MHSA funds in reserve. Its that no one or city wants these people in their backyard.

  • LFOldTimer

    This problem should’ve never been allowed to grow this far out of control. The worthless politicians only act when the pitchforks and torches come out. By that time the damage is already done. But there is hope. 2018 Campaign season is just around the corner so the grandstanders like Spitzer will be front and center feigning concern – like Andy Do did when he ran for reelection in 2016. Maybe Andy will let Todd borrow his sleeping bag so he can have a sleep-in with the homeless on the riverbed. Maybe he can invite Rusty Kennedy and the OC Human Rights Commission too. I haven’t heard squat from old Rusty about the plight of the homeless on the riverbed. I guess he only shows up when there’s a report of a hate crime. And why isn’t the OC homeless czar, Susan Price, mingling with the homeless along the riverbed? Aren’t we paying her enough to get her hands dirty?

  • verifiedsane

    The police state on routine patrol….feeling safe yet?