Orange County sheriff’s deputies began the process of evicting hundreds of homeless people from along the Santa Ana River bank near Angel Stadium Monday morning, with deputies walking tent-to-tent and telling those inside they soon could receive citations or get arrested if they don’t leave.
“We’re not going to come in with an army of deputies and force everybody off in 24 hours,” Undersheriff Don Barnes told reporters. “We’re looking for progress. We’re looking for those who are occupying the riverbed to start making progress and start relocating voluntarily.”
Deputies began making their way down the river trail shortly after 9 a.m. Monday to inform people they will have to leave. If people stay, they could be cited or arrested in the coming weeks, the deputies said. There was no date given for when deputies will start issuing citations or making arrests.
By nightfall Monday, a handful of people had packed up and left the area, but a large majority of the tents remained. People were on hand with a minivan and U-Haul truck to help people move out.
“At some point, the individuals here, including recreational users, this area will be closed … at some point there will be a time where people will have to leave. If they don’t leave they may be subject to arrest,” Barnes said, adding the county Health Care Agency has been offering housing and shelter to people.
But the county has a shortage of shelter beds, with enough room at the county's round-the-clock shelters for only 42 of the estimated 460-plus people at the riverbed camp as of Sunday night.
Another 168 shelter beds were available Sunday night at the county's cold-weather armory shelters, according to county officials, though there are strict limits on the amount of property people can bring and people have to leave the shelters during the day.
Many homeless people said they don’t know where to go.
“I’m trying to figure out if I’m able to leave to work, come back and have my stuff still be there. That’s my main concern,” said 18-year-old Isaac Sissel. “It’s easier for me to hold the job living in the tent than it is living in the shelter” because of the property storage issues.
Additionally, 171 people at the riverbed have signed up for case management services through a county contractor, City Net, but still are awaiting housing, according to January data published by the county.
"They put you on a list, and then you never hear from them again," said Lillian Martian, 60, who said she grew up in Orange County and had a "beautiful" home in Fullerton until she woke up to find her husband dead next to her, which she said prompted her to attempt suicide.
Another homeless man said the housing services offered by county officials are scarce.
“I’ve been on a wait list for two and a half months,” Americo Morales said. “There’s nothing going on really. They haven’t came at me and said something about anything.”
A Las Vegas native, Morales said the armories aren’t an option for him because he can’t leave his dog. He said he’s been on the river encampment for over two years and nearly everyone who owns an animal isn’t going to give up their pet to stay at the armories. Morales, who’s been in Orange County for nearly 10 years, said he’s not sure what his next move is.
“I don’t know. I’m just letting it ride, I guess,” Morales, a former truck driver, said.
Ashley Foster, 23, said she and her mother aren’t sure where they’re going to go.
“It’s still being discussed … I have to talk to my mom about it,” Foster said.
Like many of the people at the riverbed camp, Foster said the armories and shelters aren’t an option because she’s not abandoning her pet dog.
“One of the biggest things about us down here is our pets. They’re our family,” Foster said. She also said the stress from the impending eviction has caused her to have two seizures this month.
County officials say they will completely close a section of the river trail that includes the encampment for the next three months to conduct an environmental cleanup project.
The rest of the river trail, running southwest to the beach and northeast to the Riverside County line, will be closed from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day until the end of February, and from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. starting in March.
Many who follow the issue expect the homeless to move back into Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana, which also could increase local police citations of homeless people sleeping in parks, bus stops and in alleys behind businesses.
Some advocates contend, it will be essentially illegal to be homeless in Orange County, given the anti-camping laws countywide and shortage of shelter beds and affordable housing.
“I expect to see an uptick (in anti-camping tickets due to) … these ordinances being enforced throughout the county,” said Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, who was at the riverbed to observe the sheriff’s interactions with the homeless.
“Most of these people have nowhere to go because the lack of shelter and housing in this county…so we want to unmask the hypocrisy of a government that tells people to leave public spaces when it has not provided them with viable alternatives.”
Garrow said anti-camping ordinances are unconstitutional because there’s no alternative place for them to sleep. She also said the enforcement of the riverbed restrictions are unlawful.
“So we may see the county…violating the civil rights of people by citing them at the riverbed,” Garrow said.
County officials, meanwhile, say they need to clean up the riverbed encampment to protect public safety and the environment, including the water quality of the river, which is a flood control channel. And they say their approach will be reasonable, with offers to store people's belongings for up to 90 days, kennel dogs for free, and free transportation from the riverbed to shelters.
As of Monday night, no lawsuit was known to have been filed seeking to stop the evictions.
Major court rulings in California found that cities can enforce anti-camping ordinances (the Tobe ruling in 1995), but that homeless people can get tickets dismissed when there's a shortage of shelter beds through a "necessity defense" (the Eichorn ruling in 1999). Another ruling, the Jones decision in 2006, found it's unconstitutional for a city to punish homeless people for sleeping on public sidewalks when there's a lack of shelter beds.
The first two cases, which are the two leading California court rulings about anti-camping laws, stemmed from cases in Santa Ana, which was among a group of OC cities that enacted a series of anti-camping laws in 1992.
In the current case, the county’s eviction of homeless people from the riverbed spurred the Orange Police Department to put up fliers warning people and suggesting they call the police if they “see a suspicious person or activity.”
Sam Jamal, an attorney and Democrat running for the 39th Congressional District, said the county should pool its resources to build “true affordable housing.” He said he's not sure how the evictions are going to help anyone.
“I don’t see how you can solve a problem by creating many more problems, like what they did here … you take away this location, where are folks going to go?” Jamal asked. “Nobody’s speaking to that, so it makes me think it’s sheer reactionary politics.”
Jamal said the county needs to partner with cities and start “investing in some real infrastructure to deal with the homeless.”
“It’s job training -- making sure we’re supporting our food banks. Making sure that there are places people can stay that if they’re about to fall of the cliff, we can catch them before,” Jamal said.
An Orange resident was happy to see the riverbed start clearing out. Jeff Musgrave said his home’s value has plummeted and crime in the area has gone up.
“We got lip service for three years…this is the West Orange war zone,” Musgrave said. “We’ve been subjected to this on a daily basis…coming into our neighborhoods, shitting in my front yard, shitting in my side yard, stealing bicycles.”
Musgrave, who’s lived in Orange for 50 years, said it’s getting dangerous for people at the stores in the area.
“My wife won't even go to the store in West Orange, the Ralph’s…we’re being held hostage. We’re fed up."
He said the other residents in his neighborhood are afraid to voice their concerns.
“I’m the only one down here right now because the citizens of west Orange are afraid. Afraid to speak up,” Musgrave said. “The looks that everyone is giving me because I speak up and speak my mind about how I feel and how I’ve been affected by this crap. And I’m the bad guy -- it’s disgusting.”
Several homeless people at the riverbed said some within the camp cause problems, but that a lot of people there are just trying to get by.
"Half of us ain't that bad," said Tammy Schuler, 42, adding that a lot of homeless people at the camp have jobs. She successfully sued the county last year to require officials to give 24 hours' notice before seizing property and to store it near the riverbed.
Schuler said she's on a county wait list for housing, but hasn't been told how far down the list she is or when when affordable housing would be available.
Martian, the 60-year-old woman, said a letter was distributed saying hundreds of homeless people "will be unleashed" into neighborhoods.
" 'Unleashed'? We're not dogs," she said.
A sheriff's deputy said it’s going to take time to get the riverbed cleared out.
“It’s a slow roll. Technically, they were all supposed to be gone today. But in every case and every encampment we’ve closed, it’s been a process of several days to a week and a half,” Sgt. Shannon Parker said, adding it could take up to “several weeks" for the riverbed to clear out because of the amount of people.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.