The County of Orange will begin enforcing public hour restrictions on Friday for the Santa Ana River Trail that's turned into a lengthy stretch of homeless encampments spanning from Fountain Valley to Anaheim. Later in November, the county also plans to permanently shut down part of the trail in Fountain Valley, a move that ensures the displacement of at least 100 homeless people currently living there after already being pushed out months ago. The crackdown, announced yesterday, leaves the sizable encampment of about 400 homeless people by Angel Stadium alone for now, with a district court injunction still in effect.
Signs already posted along the trail display public access hours, but the county admits they've been "inconsistently enforced." That will change on Friday when the trail is accessible only from 7 a.m. - 6 p.m. through Feb. 26. The hours slightly expand Mar. 1 - Oct. 31 when the trail is open from 7 a.m. - 9 p.m. Anyone found at the river trail after hours will be subject to citation for violating state trespassing laws; a move that effectively acts as an overnight camping ban.
County officials are also planning to install gates at all river trail entrances later this year. The project is expected to be completed by mid-2018. Once finished, gates will be locked at closure times daily. Law enforcement patrols are promised for the gated areas during public hours. "The enforcement of public hours will enable the County to ensure the safety and security of the recreational users of the trail, while simultaneously protecting the integrity of the flood control channel for its intended purpose," says Khalid Bazmi, Chief Engineers of the OC Flood Control District, in a press statement.
The new restrictions come a week after Supervisor Shawn Nelson gave a presentation to a Republican meeting in Anaheim that suggested the county planned to clear the river trail homeless encampments in phases. Mohammed Aly, an attorney and Executive Director of the Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition, filmed the presentation that confirmed his fears. "I do believe the county has a plan to evict the riverbed encampments," Aly tells the Weekly. "Just as Nelson says, they are starting down south and moving up incrementally."
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County officials gave numerous reasons for rolling out the crackdown from identifying a "significant criminal element" in the encampments to maintaining the flood control channel as the rainy season approaches. "The notion that everybody in the Santa Ana riverbed is a criminal or is rejecting services, none of these things are true," Aly says. "A lot of these folks are holding on to whatever meager possessions they have left. Their belongings are constitutionally protected."
The advocate points to the obvious question of where the homeless will go once enforcement begins."There aren't enough shelter beds for all of the homeless people in Orange County," Aly says. "The county may possibly be stopped by an injunction." Nelson acknowledged lawsuits may be filed in opposition to county plans in his presentation. With inadequate shelter space, Aly contends that homeless people pushed out of the river trail will end up hanging around nearby neighborhoods.
Activists are planning to pack the OC Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 14, where they'll push for the county budget to allocate housing funds to end the homelessness crisis. By that time, the new river trail enforcement plan, and its outcomes, will have taken effect.
"I don't see this as a situation where anyone wins," Aly says. "It's bad for the homeless community, taxpayers who'll have to pay for lawsuits and surrounding residents."