Orange County officials announced plans Monday to shut down most of the Santa Ana River bank to overnight homeless camps, but said the largest camp, near Angel Stadium and home to over 400 people, will stay open for the time being.
The first set of new restrictions starts Friday, when the county will begin enforcing existing closing hours, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., along the Santa Ana River Trail, according to a county news release.
The news release doesn’t say where more than 80 people living in the sections of the riverbed that will be closed are expected to go. Both of the county’s year-round homeless shelters are full, and the county’s cold-weather National Guard armory shelters can provide overnight beds to just 400 of the more than 2,500 unsheltered homeless people in Orange County.
"The County is not directing individuals encamped in the area where to relocate," said county spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson warned shutting down the riverbank camps without providing another place for people to go will increase the number of homeless people on the streets of neighboring cities.
Federal courts have ruled it's unconstitutional to criminalize activities people need to survive, like sleeping, when people don’t have an adequate alternative, said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who won a court order and settlement with the county over riverbed evictions earlier this year.
If the county does close the riverbed and tickets and arrests people for being in public places when there's inadequate alternatives, Weitzman said, “there would be no option but to take legal [action].”
County officials say they plan to start enforcing the closing hours Friday.
“Starting November 3, 2017, individuals who access the [river trail] outside of the posted hours will be in violation of state trespass laws and subject to citation,” said the news release from the office of county CEO Frank Kim, who reports to the county Board of Supervisors.
The exception is a two mile area in Anaheim and Orange, from just north of the 5 freeway, past Angel Stadium and the Honda Center, to just south of Ball Road. That area, easily visible from the southbound lanes of the 57 freeway, is home to the largest homeless encampment in Orange County, with hundreds of people living in tents and under tarps.
The main homeless camp has limited protections under a court-enforced settlement that applies to property seizure and storage.
Additionally, on Nov. 10, county officials said they will permanently close a large stretch of the western side of the riverbed south of the main camp. The section they plan to close runs over six miles, from 17th Street in northern Santa Ana, through Santa Ana and Fountain Valley, to Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach.
In the coming months, county officials also plan to install pedestrian gates to block access to the river trail after-hours, although they said said gates will not be closed along the main camp near Angel Stadium, for the time being.
"The enforcement of public hours will enable the County to ensure the safety and security of the recreational users of the trail, while simultaneously protecting the integrity of the flood control channel for its intended purpose," said Khalid Bazmi, chief engineer of the Orange County Flood Control District, which maintains the riverbed, in a memo to his superiors, the county Board of Supervisors.
Fountain Valley residents who live near the riverbed complained to county supervisors this summer about homeless people reportedly breaking into cars, stealing items, and threatening neighbors.
Officials say they won’t enforce the closing hours and gate closures at the main camp “at this time,” because of a federal court order for that area that imposes requirements on the county when seizing homeless people’s property.
That area is defined in a settlement agreement between the county and the homeless people who sued, including Tammy Schuler. It runs from 900 feet north of the railroad tracks north of Katella Avenue, which is near Ball Road, to 750 feet south of Chapman Avenue, near the 5 freeway.
The announcement was accompanied by health and safety warnings about the encampment from multiple county agencies, including Health Care Agency concerns about “waste, sanitation and disease transmission, availability of services and potable water, mental health concerns and concerns related to violent crimes.”
The upcoming closures could increase the size of the main homeless camp, near Angel Stadium, if people who live in the areas to be shut down, move to the larger encampment. The main camp had an estimated 422 people living there in August, according to a survey conducted by a county contractor.
County officials estimate another 80 to 100 people live in the Fountain Valley section of the riverbed they plan to close.
The closure announcement was consistent with the county strategy outlined by Nelson, who said county officials would be trying to close down southern portions of the riverbed and work their way north to the main camp.
Nelson has said he would prefer the county provide an alternative location for homeless people to go, such as a temporary shelter on 100 acres of county-owned land in Irvine. And without such an alternative, he warned the evictions would push homeless people into surrounding communities.
Orange County’s homeless population has skyrocketed in recent years, reaching over 2,500 this year – a 54 percent increase from four years earlier.
The largest encampment used to be at the county Civic Center. But the county closed off its section while they construct a new building, with many homeless people moving to the city’s side and the riverbed.
City and county officials have received a deluge of complaints from residents about the riverbed camps, many who reported finding trash, needles and drug paraphernalia. 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.
It's also affected local business operators, like Ryan Nguyen, who owns a Lee's Sandwiches franchise along Chapman Avenue near the riverbed.
In an interview Monday, Nguyen said he understands people have needs, but that the main riverbed camp has "too many people concentrated in an area."
He said his staff have had to deal with homeless people taking a shower in the restroom, yelling at employees, and doing drugs in the restrooms.
“That affects the business, because [customers get] scared and they won’t come back," Nguyen said. He said the camp, and its effect on his business, have grown since word spread about plans to close other parts of the riverbed.
“It’s getting worse now, ever since the news that they’re trying to close the riverbed," Nguyen said.
Asked what should be done, Nguyen said there should be faster response times when his staff call the police – one response took 40 minutes, he said – as well as expanded opportunities for shelters and housing for homeless people.
Many homeless activists agree the riverbed is not the right place for homeless people, but say there are no realistic alternatives for the hundreds of people there to go, given the shortage of shelter and housing space.
As the encampment has grown, so has a sense of permanence. The city of tents and blue tarps 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, who are the ultimate decision-makers regarding the riverbed policies, have not publicly taken action to close the riverbed.
But they have spoken privately about the homeless situation, under the auspices of potential lawsuits against the county. At least one of those discussions appeared to involve discussion of whether to allow a nonprofit group to install bathrooms at the riverbed.
County officials say they’ve helped 101 formerly homeless people move into housing from the riverbed under a contract with the nonprofit group City Net that started in July.
The City Net contract ends Dec. 31, after which Nelson says the county will likely try to move people out of the largest camp. Braun, the county spokeswoman, said Monday there is “no specified plan at this point” to remove people from that area.
Sheriff’s deputies began stepped-up patrols of the riverbed last month, and say they’ve made arrests there for robbery and domestic violence, among other crimes.
“Beyond observed and reported criminal behavior, deputies also have reported multiple safety concerns including hypodermic needles littered along the bike path, unsafe use of propane tanks and generators, and discarded narcotics,” sheriff’s officials said in a news release last week.
The department also says 83 percent of the time sheriff’s deputies spoke with homeless people at the riverbed, the homeless people declined offers of services.
“After seven weeks of sustained operations, our Homeless Outreach Team has observed significant threats to the homeless and surrounding communities,” said Undersheriff Don Barnes in a news release last week.
“Although outreach is an important aspect of our efforts, a vast majority of the population we contact is resistant to the services we are offering. The criminal element that remains exploits other individuals experiencing homelessness, victimizes nearby residents and threatens recreational users of the riverbed trail.”
That statistic seems to contradict a county survey in August, in which contractor City Net found only 19 percent of homeless people at the riverbed said they were not interested in case management services. The other 81 percent – or 246 out of 303 people – said they were interested, according to the survey.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer cited sheriff’s data at a supervisors’ meeting earlier this month, arguing deputies found that 50 percent of homeless people at the riverbed refused services.
“People living in the encampments have every opportunity to accept a pathway out of homelessness," Spitzer said in a statement Monday about the riverbed closures.
“There should be no excuse, and people not accepting assistance will have no choice but to leave the riverbed.”
Weitzman, the attorney who won the settlement over homeless people's property, said the survey results are influenced by the way deputies have approached people.
“I’ve seen the sheriff's [deputies] visit the riverbed. They arrive in an unmarked van, and they pile out in full kevlar uniforms, which is pretty scary” for homeless people,” Weitzman said.
Additionally, she said, advocates have been encouraging people at the riverbed to assert their constitutional rights and not engage with law enforcement if they don’t have to.
“So I suspect that the sheriff’s numbers are more related to the way in which they approach people and the advice these vulnerable communities have been given to take steps to protect themselves."
The Sheriff’s Department's recent news releases about the riverbed prominently quote Barnes, who Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has endorsed to replace her in next June’s election. Barnes is facing a challenger, Dave Harrington, a former sheriff’s sergeant who is mayor of Aliso Viejo.
A poll in June by Republican campaign pollster Adam Probolsky found the number-one issue voters care about in Orange County is homelessness, tied for first with affordable housing and living.
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 affordable permanent housing options for all homeless people.
County supervisors now are considering a plan to rename the county’s Commission to End Homelessness, to the “System of Care Commission.”
According to the proposed changes, which were brought before the commission Friday, county supervisors would remove the goal of ending homelessness “over the next decade.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.