OC Cities Struggle With Resources to Clean Up Railroad Homeless Camps

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

A homeless camp on the Union Pacific railroad in near Cerritos Avenue and Anaheim Boulevard in Anaheim on April 10, 2018.

Orange County cities struggle to quickly clean up railroad homeless camps because of strained resources offered by some railroad companies, but a federal judge is pushing companies to contribute more.

Some cities are looking to increase pressure on railroad companies on what officials consider negligence on the railroads’ part for not addressing the various homeless camps which have popped up after the County evicted homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed last year.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who’s presiding over a lawsuit against the County for its homeless policies, has repeatedly insisted the railroad companies need to increase their efforts to address homeless camps on their railroads, which are private property.

He said city officials keep telling him about the encampments.

“It’s starting to appear, and I’m hearing it redundantly …  this is a terrible blight,” Carter said at the April 2 hearing.

He said “nobody’s patrolling” the railroads in Anaheim, Santa Ana and Orange.

“Well, that’s private property,” Carter said. “Guess who pays the bill for law enforcement clean  up?”

Santa Ana Councilman David Penaloza told Voice of OC its an increasing problem in Santa Ana, namely on Union Pacific railroads.

“Well right now, you know, it’s a very, very, very big problem in Santa Ana with all of our railroads,” Penaloza said.

The city may sue Union Pacific for neglecting to clean up the camps, he said.

“I know that we’re looking at taking legal action against [Union Pacific] because it is their property and they should maintain it. If I’m a property owner and I’m a business owner, I’m going to be forced to maintain my property or else code enforcement is going to come fine me and it should be the same with the railroad companies,” Penaloza said.

He also said Santa Ana should be reimbursed for the cleanup efforts on the railroad tracks.

“I know as a city we’re looking at numerous options moving forward to go after the railroad company for maintenance and also reimbursement for all the money — the thousands of dollars — that its cost the city to maintain and keep the railroads in our city at least somewhat reasonably clean,” Penaloza said.

But Union Pacific spokesman Tim McMahan said the company has been partnering with cities.

Union Pacific has worked with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to remove trespassers from its property in many locations in California. Union Pacific appreciates that Orange County has a number of programs to benefit homeless persons. Union Pacific is working to try to coordinate further opportunities for joint efforts to connect people with services they may need as we address trespassing on UP’s right of way,” said McMahan in an email statement.  

Santa Ana tried to get a same-day request from the Superior Court to issue a code enforcement warrant against railroads, but was denied.

Bill Taormina, an Anaheim business owner who’s actively involved in local affairs, told Carter April 2 he and other business owners are going to file a class action lawsuit against the railroads because of “the negligence on the part of these mega corporations” to clean up the debris and homeless camps. Taormina didn’t name which railroad company he and the other business owners are going to sue.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad spokeswoman Laura Kent told Voice of OC the company has employed teams and contractors to patrol and clean up the railroad tracks since January 2018.

“So we had already started a pretty aggressive program long before we went to meet with the judge because this isn’t an issue just in Orange County … California certainly by far has a majority of the encampments,” Kent said.

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

A homeless camp on the Union Pacific railroad in near Cerritos Avenue and Anaheim Boulevard in Anaheim on April 10, 2018.

“You will not find where we’re asking the police department or the city to come in an clear the encampments on our property. It’s something we as a private company have taken on,” she said. “I think in this particular situation, when they say the railroads they’re looping us all in — that’s a very broad term.”

Kent said BNSF officials have regular meetings with cities and cited the recent clear out of a railroad encampment in Placentia. She said the railroad team will work with local police and other officials in an effort to get homeless people into a nearby shelter.

“Placentia is a good example of a community we have regular meetings with the police department … we certainly don’t want it to be pushed back out on to their property,” Kent said.

Placentia officials didn’t respond for comment.

Anaheim is also facing similar issues with the two main railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF. Although the companies help the city clear out homeless encampments, the city would like to see the railroads increase their resources to address the issues.

“Union Pacific has been a pretty good partner with us going in and working on these encampments. It’s just that the resources aren’t there to do it as frequently and quickly as we would like,” Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said.

Anaheim needs authorization from the railroads before they can begin to address the camps because its private property, Lyster said. The city also has to coordinate with the railroad in order to get a flagman to oversee safety of the work crews, social workers and police while on the railroad tracks.

Although the city spends some resources by sending outreach teams to the homeless camps to offer shelter and other services, Lyster said the rail companies bear the cost of cleaning up the sites.

“They come out with, literally, heavy equipment, containers to take away debris. They come out and basically do the heavy lift on this and we’re there with support,” Lyster said.

Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno said he’s concerned the city may be spending more resources to clean up the railroad tracks than the companies are providing.

“Are we spending city money to patrol the railroad tracks while at the same time our residents are struggling with other issues that are not related to homelessness?” Moreno said. “I believe our city is engaging the railroad companies on who bears the cost.”

He said if the railroad companies aren’t helping Anaheim, then the city should send railroad companies bills for resources and money spent cleaning up the railroad homeless camps.

“If we’re doing that, then it’s a public service we’re doing for a private entity. I think that’s the way we want to go, what do we do with private property owners who are businesses or residents and the city cleans up their spot — they get a bill. They get fined. I think that it’s also an equity issue,” Moreno said.

Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the railroad companies received at least $600 million in federal subsidies to maintain their infrastructure.

Lyster said Anaheim is trying to get the railroad companies to increase the resources for cleaning up homeless camps.

“Now would we like to see change happen with them sooner? Of course,” Lyster said. “The only limitation is the resources and the immense geography the railroad faces.”

Carter’s concern about railroad homeless encampments at the June 13, 2018 hearing appeared to push railroad companies to address the encampment issues.

He told the Union Pacific and BNSF representatives that the railroads “are a mess” at the June 2018 court hearing.

Carter also told them to bring more resources in to help address the homeless camps.

“Personnel and money … Am I clear?” Carter told railroad officials. “I want you to step up with more resources.”

Kent, the BNSF spokeswoman, said she informed Carter what the company was doing to address camps at that time.

“When he had originally said the railroads aren’t doing their fair share, that was back in June (2018), I went in and spoke to the judge and let him know what we were doing and sent him a letter … and we haven’t heard anything since June 2018,” Kent said.

But County Supervisor Doug Chaffee said the railroads still aren’t doing enough to address the issue.

“They gave assurances that they’d do a better job, but I don’t think they have,” Chaffee said. ”The problem with the railroads is a continuous one where debris and stuff builds up and they don’t go out there. It’s not just from homeless encampments.”  

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.