A sense of uncertainty is hanging over one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments, as county officials prepare to start evicting over 400 homeless people Monday from a strip of land next to the Santa Ana River amid a shortage of shelter beds, which is expected to prompt homeless people to relocate into the surrounding cities of Anaheim and Orange.

County officials say sheriff’s deputies will give those living in the large riverbank encampment, near Angel Stadium, time to pack up and leave.

“We don’t know where we’re gonna go,” said Michelle Mora, a homeless woman who lives at the encampment. “We have to live somewhere,” added Mora, who said she was born and raised in Anaheim. “A lot of people are sick. A lot of people are disabled.”

“They’re about to disperse hundreds of people back on the streets,” where officials didn’t want them before, she said. “They can’t exterminate us. They would if they could, though.”

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson has warned the move will “push” homeless people into nearby Anaheim, given the lack of alternative places for people to go.

The latest county estimate, as of early January, is 464 people are “frequent” inhabitants of the riverbed camp, which extends from the northeastern edge of the Angel Stadium parking lot south to the 5 freeway.

County officials say they are working to accommodate homeless people, including offering to store belongings for up to 90 days and kenneling pets for free.

Sheriff’s Department officials say they will allow people time to pack up.

“This is going to be a reasonable, methodical approach. And we recognize that these are people; these are individuals who need time to voluntarily comply with the request of the county,” said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

Sheriff’s deputies will arrive Monday around 9 a.m., and don’t plan to cite people as long as they’re packing up and moving toward leaving, she said.

“There’s no expectation that the area is going to be cleared as of Monday,” Braun said. Deputies will accommodate people “as long as forward progress is being made, and as long as people are complying with the request to voluntarily relocate.”

County staff say they aren’t directing people where to go, but that there are about 240 beds available in county shelters.

A large majority of those available beds (195) are in the county’s armory shelters, which have strict limits on possessions and which homeless people are required to leave during the day. Only about 50 beds countywide are available during the day and night. In addition to the riverbed, homessless camps can be found throughout the county.

City officials are preparing for homeless people to move from the riverbed into their communities. The city of Orange posted fliers about the impending eviction, asking people to call police if they “see a suspicious person or activity.”

Nelson, the county supervisor, emphasized that point at a community meeting in October, when he foreshadowed that the county would likely move to clear out the encampment.

“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.

Residents of the encampment say many homeless people there have disabilities and are at a loss about where they should go.

“I’m completely stressed out,” said 59 year-old Sher Stuckman, adding she had two seizures Thursday  before early afternoon.

She said the county’s armory shelters aren’t an option because she has more possessions than fit in the two bags she’d be allowed to bring with her, and she said she was assaulted at the county’s other shelter, the Courtyard.

“I don’t have anywhere to go. Just me and my dogs, and my mental illnesses,” Stuckman said. She said she had PTSD, bipolar disorder, and a personality disorder.

Stuckman said she was “a native Orange Countian” raised in Anaheim, and that she ended up at the riverbed encampment after suffering a stroke in June. “After I got out of the hospital I had nowhere to go. And that’s how I ended up here,” she said.

A county news release in October suggested people would be allowed to remain overnight on the part of the river trail that runs east of Imperial Highway between Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills. One man who said he spoke with a sheriff’s deputy said he was told homeless people would be allowed to move to the riverbed north of Imperial Highway.

But the sheriff’s spokeswoman said that’s not accurate. Deputies currently are enforcing – and will continue to enforce – closing hours along the entire length of the riverbed within Orange County, Braun said. Those closing hours are 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. until the end of February, and from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. starting in March.

Several people at the Santa Ana riverbed encampment were under the impression, based on what they were told by others, that a court order protects them from being evicted.

That’s not the case. The main order applying to the camp – in the form of a settlement agreement that can be enforced by a federal judge – does not block the county from evicting people or seizing their property. Instead, it requires the county to give 24-hour written notice before taking people’s property, and to store seized property for 90 days near the riverbed at a facility open during business hours.

As for the upcoming eviction, it’s unclear whether there will be a lawsuit filed, and whether there are grounds for such a suit.

The leading federal court precedent on the issue, Jones vs. City of Los Angeles, granted homeless people the right to sleep on public sidewalks when there’s a shortage of shelter beds.

“The Eighth Amendment prohibits the City from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles,” states the 2006 ruling from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

That ruling, however, dealt specifically with sidewalks, not the area next to a flood control channel like the Santa Ana River, which Orange County says it needs to maintain for public safety.

John George Olenik, who lives at the riverbed camp, said the Jones ruling still provides rights for homeless people.

“We have a right to sleep…and that ruling protects us,” said Olenik, 54, who said he grew up in Newport Beach starting in 7th grade and ran a business cleaning fish tanks. He said he is now disabled from PTSD, and that his daughter is his legal guardian, known as a “conservator.”

A homeless man on Imperial Highway where it crosses the Santa Ana River In Anaheim. Credit: TRACY WOOD, Voice of OC

He acknowledged the county has legitimate need to maintain flood control channels, but argued the encampment was separate from the river flood control area.

Olenik said if the county requires him to leave, he would relocate to “a couple blocks” away from the riverbed, unless his daughter helps him find a place to stay.

Another homeless person said she was thankful the riverbed camp has been open as long as it has.

“I’m grateful that we were even allowed to be here for as long [as we have been],” said the woman, who asked to be identified as “Stephanie.”

She said there’s been a lot of drug use at the encampment. “They didn’t have the upbringing” other people had, she said, adding many of the homeless people at the camp were born into families with parents who were addicted to drugs. Many were taken to the county’s emergency shelter for abused and neglected children, Orangewood Children’s Home, when they were kids, she said.

Stephanie said she grew up in Orange County, had a career for 22 years, then went thorough a divorce and “lost it all.” She said she signed up with the county’s homelessness outreach contractor, City Net, for housing and is on a waiting list.

County officials say City Net has helped 159 people at the riverbed move into housing as of Jan. 8, and that an additional 171 people have engaged in case management and are awaiting housing. There are more than 5,000 homeless people throughout Orange County according to government estimates.

As for what she’ll do when the county clears out the camp, Stephanie said, “There is no other option right now.”

She said the county’s armory shelters aren’t an option for her. “There’s men down there that look at you like a pork chop,” she said. “It’s creepy.”

Stephanie pointed to the over $200 million in mental health money the county has stockpiled and said officials should be using it to address homelessness.

Mora, the homeless woman who said she was born and raised in Anaheim, said she “grew a family” at the riverbed camp, and that it will be difficult to keep those connections after people have to relocate. People at the camp provided moral support for each other, she said.

Mora noted her hometown’s official motto, “City of Kindness,” which the Anaheim City Council recently adopted.

“I’m a little disappointed in my ‘City of Kindness,” she said.

This article has been updated to include the Sheriff’s Department’s position that people will not be allowed to remain overnight anywhere on the riverbed within Orange County.

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

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