Supervisor Nelson: County To Phase Homeless People Out of Santa Ana Riverbed

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.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson says the county likely will try to move people out of Orange County’s largest homeless camp in phases, and “push” many of the hundreds of homeless people who live along the Santa Ana River into the city of Anaheim.

“I think you’re gonna start seeing, probably further south [on the riverbed], an effort to start getting people out of the river, removing locations that are…sort of an invitation to camp,” Nelson said during a presentation he gave last week to an Anaheim Republican community meeting.

“[You will] probably see more areas getting fenced off, smaller groups being relocated at a time,” he added, according to a video of his presentation. Several hundred people live in the homeless camps next to the concrete river banks in sections that extend roughly from Angel Stadium to Fountain Valley.

Nelson said the effort to move out homeless people would later go north to the main camps near Angel Stadium sometime after the new year begins. He warned that under the current situation, with few available shelter beds for riverbed dwellers, homeless people would be pushed out into Anaheim.

“Unfortunately, the status that we’re in right now, if you push people out you will end up dealing with it in the city,” Nelson said.

For months he has supported temporarily relocating homeless people to empty county land, including 100 acres in Irvine. But Nelson said a majority of his colleagues on the five-member Board of Supervisors don’t want to do it.

Regarding riverbed evictions, Nelson said: “Probably we’ll learn some hard lessons there. We’ll probably struggle through some lawsuits, and hopefully figure out what is or isn’t gonna be allowed, and that process will work its way up north.”

Southern parts of the riverbed, like the section in Fountain Valley, are home to smaller homeless camps, while the largest region is centered around the riverbed area near Angel Stadium, on the border of Anaheim and Orange.

This process will be done “by segment” and likely will get to the Anaheim and Orange sections of the riverbed “after the first of the year,” Nelson said.

He was speaking Wednesday, Oct. 18, to a community meeting about homelessness organized by the Anaheim Republican Assembly.

County spokeswoman Carrie Braun declined to comment on Nelson’s remarks, other than saying: “A flood control [channel] is not a safe place to live, and the county is doing everything we can to coordinate resources to engage the individuals who are encamped in the area with available housing and resource opportunities.”

She wouldn’t confirm or deny if Nelson was accurately describing the county’s plans. None of the other four county supervisors returned phone messages seeking comment.

Nelson strongly suggested the plans are not what he wants, telling audience members, “don’t think that what the county’s about to do is my prescription for how to do it.” But he said he believes it is “likely to happen,” given the will of a majority of the Board of Supervisors, who ultimately decide county policy.

Nelson said his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors could provide an alternative, organized place for those living along the riverbed, but that most of the other supervisors have blocked such efforts.

“We actually could get the people that want to be off the river – we could get ‘em off. We should. But we don’t want to,” Nelson said.

“It’s not comfortable saying that, but the reality is, the county has an inventory of property that they’ve had long before I had anything to say about it,” he continued.

“If there was a massive earthquake or a hurricane, do you think we’d take two years looking for a place to set up tents? Of course not. We would deal with it immediately.”

Nelson reiterated his call for the county to use some of its 100 acres in Irvine, near the Great Park, for emergency temporary homeless beds.

“We have 100 acres in [Irvine] that has been pre-approved for homeless facilities. It’s flat, and the neighbors are Second Harvest Food Bank, an OCTA bus base,” and property that someday might be used to store trains, he said.

“That’s probably not the best permanent facility. But if we had an emergency – which some might argue we do – it would be available. If that fire that just went through [part of Anaheim Hills and Orange Park Acres] had burned the homes to the level that it’s burned ‘em in Northern California, I don’t think that there’d be any hesitation to immediately deal with the issue there.”

“We could deal with this. I’ve asked my colleagues to deal with this, and there’s no takers…there’s no appetite to do that.”

Nelson’s idea of using county-owned land for emergency shelters also has met significant pushback from cities like Irvine.

County government is the lead public agency that receives funding to address Orange County’s homelessness, mental health, and drug addiction issues. It takes three supervisors – a majority – to either approve or reject any policy directions, such as setting up emergency shelters on county land or ordering the riverbed cleared.

County officials have emphasized they need support from local cities to establish facilities, like temporary shelters. In the case of the county’s 100 acres in Irvine, the land is already zoned to allow emergency shelters under city code.

Additionally, the county does not need city permits or zoning approval to build on its land, because counties are a higher level of government, according to county officials and Santa Ana’s city attorney.

Nelson called on his fellow supervisors, and the public, to support locations for temporary shelter beds.

“We need to deal with the urgency of people being on the street and not having a place to go,” Nelson said. “If we can find an address the world will tolerate, that my board will support – that’s where the focus is, and that’s, in my opinion, where the immediate need is.”

Click on the video below, or this link, to watch Nelson’s presentation.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.