Anaheim Doubles Down on Homeless at Santa Ana Riverbed

Homeless people live in tents on the Santa Ana River bike trail encampment next to Angel Stadium of Anaheim, in Anaheim on Saturday, April 1, 2017. (Raul Roa/Daily Pilot)

The Anaheim City Council will double down on existing efforts to provide services to homeless people before eventually clearing out large encampments along the Santa Ana River.

The council voted unanimously early Wednesday morning to approve a proposal by Councilwoman Kris Murray, dubbed “Operation Home SAFE,” which calls for law enforcement to take action against “those individuals who decline to accept shelter and services and instead elect to engage in unlawful activity” at riverbed encampments.

The vote also declares a 'state of emergency,' although that is a largely symbolic distinction that does not trigger any special city, state or federal funds.

The council also called on the county to establish a new, 500-person emergency shelter and provide more social workers and mental health services; and promises to expedite building permits and waive fees for future homeless shelters.

“Ultimately when a date is set for ultimate removal of folks into permanent or temporary shelters – we set a date for when the riverbed is no longer any kind of encampment – [and] we create a triage day to help move people into shelters,” Murray said. “And follow up with enforcing our laws.”

Murray’s proposal also calls for the convening of an emergency task force consisting of county representatives and other cities that share jurisdiction with the Santa Ana River.

The City Council’s action comes less than a day after the county Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday morning to ramp up Sheriff’s Department patrols along the riverbed.

At least 422 people live along the Santa Ana River between Chapman Avenue and Ball Road, according to a July survey conducted by the nonprofit CityNet.

More than half of the homeless individuals surveyed reported a disability; 42 percent reported a mental health condition; 24 percent said they struggle with drug addiction; and 37 percent said they have been victims of domestic violence.

The riverbed, which until recently was rarely patrolled by either county or city law enforcement, has triggered concerns about crime, trash, drug use and unsanitary conditions at the riverbed and at other encampments citywide.

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

“This plan as I see it has a balance of compassion for those who want help as well as tough love for people who refuse help,” said resident Elissa Goodwin. "Send a message that homelessness may not be a crime, but crime done by homeless may not be tolerated."

But many residents and activists also have questioned whether a greater law enforcement presence at the riverbed will only exacerbate conditions for homeless people by issuing them citations and seizing their belongings.

“I feel we really need to get out of this narrative that frames poor people as a public health and safety threat,” said Eve Garrow, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Their only crime is being too poor to afford a place to live.”

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who spoke at length to the city council Tuesday evening, pledged the county would work with the city.

“The county has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to assist the homeless and it has not spent those monies. That's shameful," Spitzer said.

Spitzer also said, to a mixture of boos and cheers, he would support putting back portable toilets and wash stations at the river bed to prevent communicable disease outbreaks, citing a deadly Hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego.

Policing the Riverbed

The Anaheim Police Department and county Sheriff’s Department will start patrolling the riverbed beginning on Friday.

Spitzer claims the increased patrols will reduce the homeless population at the encampment by twenty percent.

The city currently has two full-time police officers as part of its homeless outreach team and will add two more to help patrol the riverbed, said Chief Raul Quezada.

According to Quezada, Anaheim police officers will be able to enforce county anti-camping laws on the riverbed and the city attorney’s office has been granted permission by the District Attorney’s office to prosecute any violations.

Any seizure of property or enforcement of anti-camping laws will have to comply with recent court rulings and an injunction against the county that deals with seizure of property, according to acting city attorney Kristen Pelletier.

The city must follow the guidelines set out in Jones v. Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that says the city of Los Angeles cannot not enforce a law against sleeping in the streets when there are no shelter beds available. In general, the ruling means the city cannot attempt to remove people from the riverbed without trying first to offer them meaningful shelter and services, said Lyster.

“It’s not like they are just going to go in there and start citing everyone, it’s going to be a community policing strategy,” said Lyster. “It’s about having a police presence there.”

A few attorneys spoke against Murray’s proposal, citing concerns about its emphasis on law enforcement.

“Legal Aid [Society] is very concerned about the resolution because it calls for an immediate increase in law enforcement before housing solutions are in place,” said attorney Sarah Gregory.

A Unanimous Vote

After a series of heated meetings, Mayor Tom Tait has said he wants to hit the “reset” button and repair the council’s contentious and often adversarial dynamic.

Councilman Jose Moreno said he supported Murray’s proposal but criticized some aspects of it, including what he said was an exaggeration of criminality among the homeless population.

Moreno said that many of the provisions of Operation Home SAFE double down on existing efforts by the city to alleviate homelessness.

“There’s a narrative out there that this is all brand new...and staff has already been doing a whole lot and this is allowing them to do more,” Moreno said.

He also attempted to introduce several amendments to the bill, including requirements that the city renegotiate previous tax subsidy agreements with private businesses to help finance Murray’s proposal.

That prompted pushback from Murray.

“I don't accept the amendments because I don't think they were offered in a friendly manner,” Murray said.

Tait sought a more conciliatory tone.

“We all need to work together, not just here on this dais but with the county and advocates,” said Tait. “And this is something we as a society need to solve...and we need to solve it in a humane and kind way.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.