Orange County’s largest homeless encampment – along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium – will see stepped up law enforcement patrols by the Sheriff’s Department, under a plan approved Tuesday by county supervisors, but officials say they will not be clearing out the area.
The expanded patrols by sheriff’s deputies are scheduled to begin Friday, according to a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.
“The focus for [the Sheriff’s Department] right now is victim-based crime, not enforcing code violations/camping ordinances/etc to clear out the riverbed,” said Jaimee Lynn Fletcher, the spokeswoman, in a statement Tuesday afternoon. She said she didn’t know how many extra deputies would be patrolling.
The current plan is to expand the sheriff’s staffing at the riverbed from three deputies to 18 deputies total, across various shifts.
The sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Team would be expanded from three deputies to six. And an additional 12 deputies would be assigned to an enhanced patrol team at the riverbed, with the number potentially changing based on what officials determine is appropriate.
Homeless advocates and campers, as well as bike riders along the trail, have complained about drug use and fighting by some within the riverbed camps.
A county spokeswoman and Supervisor Todd Spitzer also said there’s no timeline for clearing out the riverbed, although Spitzer unsuccessfully sought to establish a time frame for moving them out.
“Ultimately the goal is to transition everyone from the riverbed and this is the next incremental step,” said Fletcher. She said she didn’t know how many extra deputies would be patrolling.
With a severe shortage of shelter and housing beds in Orange County – over 2,500 people sleep on the streets countywide while shelters are full – and cities enforcing anti-camping laws, the riverbed has become home to hundreds of homeless people.
A recent survey by a county contractor found 422 homeless people living along the riverbed’s main encampment area, between Chapman Avenue and Ball Road in the cities of Anaheim and Orange. More camps extend south into Santa Ana and Fountain Valley.
The county has a 10-year plan to end homelessness by September 2020, but it is far behind in its main goal for 2015 through 2020 of creating of affordable permanent housing options for all homeless people.
The move to step up enforcement came in response to longstanding complaints about the encampment from nearby businesses and residents. Additionally, cyclists say they feel unsafe on one of the region’s main bike baths, which now runs through the encampment.
And residents have complained a sense of lawlessness has developed as city police in Anaheim and Orange consider the riverbed under the Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction, while the sheriff considers it a city jurisdiction.
The Sheriff’s Department may seek a budget increase to cover additional costs for the extra enforcement, according to a written report by county CEO Frank Kim.
Decisions on increasing the sheriff’s budget rest with county supervisors, who also oversee the riverbed property. At their regular meeting Tuesday, supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking the Sheriff’s Department to “dedicate additional resources” to the riverbed to address “illegal criminal activities on and adjacent to” the riverbed encampments, including in areas within incorporated cities.
The approved resolution also asks the Sheriff's Department to "convene local law enforcement agencies to develop a comprehensive county-wide public safety response plan to criminal activities and public concerns in the Channels."
“We made it unequivocally clear we’re closing the riverbed and not allowing people to habitate there,” Spitzer told KCBS-TV.
“We’re not going to allow the riverbed to become Orange County’s skid row… So, we’re going to clear everybody out of there, but we’re going to be humane about it.”
But the next day, at Tuesday’s meeting, he didn’t gain enough support from other supervisors to define a timeline to actually clear out the riverbed.
In a message to a Voice of OC reporter after the meeting, Spitzer noted the annual winter opening of armories that house 400 homeless countywide will begin in October, a few weeks earlier than usual. The cold-weather armory program runs through spring, and Spitzer said 20 percent of the riverbed population “will leave just because the [deputies] are coming.”
Advocates for homeless people expressed concern the increased patrols would lead to enforcement of minor nuisance issues, that would require homeless people to pay for tickets they can’t afford, and go to jail and lose their property.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.