Langenbacher: Waterfront Living in OC Isn’t What You’d Expect

A homeless encampment across the Santa Ana River from Anaheim on a stormy day.

Waterfront living in Orange County has become our twenty-first century “trail of tears.”

Most people think of the forced relocation of Native Americans in the 1830s–commonly known as the “trail of tears”–as a horrific stain on our American legacy that would never be repeated. Yet here we are, in 2018, witnessing a modern-day trail of tears in our own backyard. On the Santa Ana River in Anaheim seagulls rest in the shallow water and stretch their wings to swoop over residents of “Camp Hope.” Meanwhile southbound drivers on the “57” cannot help but gaze to the other side of the river and see the vast assortment of tents and tarps in the shadow of Angel Stadium that those who are homeless call their “home.” These encampments look like something one might expect in a “third world” country. One wonders, how did one of the wealthiest counties in the richest nation ever known come to this?!

Taking a closer look at the community of people, estimated up to 1200 (it’s difficult to get an accurate account of mobile people), who live along the Santa Ana River in these encampments, it is noted there is a diverse group of individuals and even families ( Anaheim Poverty Task Force).

Included among them are young adults who have aged out of foster care, wounded veterans, women escaping domestic violence, people with severe (mental and/ or physical) illness, individuals and families who are down on their luck, and some who have been affected by addiction. What you also see is resilience, cleverness, compassion, and dog lovers (there are probably 100 homeless dogs living with their owners along the river). Everyone here knows on which days meals are provided at churches in the vicinity, which emergency shelters are the best, where to ask for a hand-out, and shares that information with others. They band together for security and support, and most, when offered clothing, or toiletries, or food, will not take more than their share so that others in their community can have some too. What they also all have in common is that they did not choose to be here, and want a better life.

People wind up on the Santa Ana River due to public policies of restricted camping in 33 of 34 Orange County cities, and few emergency shelters (Nowhere to Live: The Homeless Crisis in Orange County & How to End ItACLU, 2016). Individuals are thus moved from one location to another, just as were the Cherokees and Navajos moved from their homes to one place after another until they were significantly restricted in the 1830s, making this our modern-day “trail of tears.” This is truly a moral outrage! All religions teach that we should care for those who are the most vulnerable among us – – the poor, the disabled, the elderly, children – – yet we treat those who are homeless in our neighborhoods as fallen leaves, blowing them from one location to the next.

In 2010 the Orange County Board of Supervisors put forth a “Ten Year Plan” to end homelessness in Orange County. Since that time the situation has become worse, not better, and the ten years is almost up. Among the barriers to success for this plan are the high cost of housing in Orange County and the lengthy waits for Section 8 low income housing (up to eight years or more). Another impediment to progress is the allocation of funds by the County to end the problem. This is surprising in fiscally conservative Orange County, as it costs almost twice as much to maintain an individual who is homeless than to provide housing. Estimates are that, when costs of policing and emergency room visits are factored in, it can cost the county close to $100,000 per year for each person who is homeless, while to provide housing to that same individual would cost approximately $50,000. (Homeless Forum, UUCF, 2016) With adequate housing health improves, individuals can find work and keep a job, mental health improves, the entire community benefits, and many can become independent and move away from public assistance, thus restoring pride and self-esteem. Other cities and counties have resolved their problems with homelessness with some success. We should study what they have done, including appropriate funding, and emulate their policies and programs to suit Orange County, ending our “trail of tears” and making the “Ten Year Plan” to end homelessness in Orange County a reality.

Deborah Langenbacher lives in Fullerton and is the Social Action Committee co-chair for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fullerton 

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