County Sweeps Try to Clear Out Santa Ana Riverbed of Homeless While Prepping for El Niño

"Underneath the bridge / The tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I've trapped / Have all become my pets" - Kurt Cobain
"Underneath the bridge / The tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I've trapped / Have all become my pets" - Kurt Cobain
Photo by Gabriel San Roman

The barren sands of the Santa Ana Riverbed have become a refuge of last resort for OC homeless, the one place where they feel like that they can be left alone from complaining NIMBYs and local police departments that harass them on their behalf. Orange County Public Works (OCPW), backed by the Orange Police Department (OPD), disrupted that sense of sanctuary Thursday morning by starting sweeps through the area, forcing the homeless to hastily gather their belongings and find a new place to stay...for the time being.

The sweeps started at Ball Road and continued the next day. Eve Garrow, homeless policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California sounded the alarm, asking that people head down their to document the sweeps before getting there herself Thursday morning.

"People there were pulling their personal property, their tents, all of their belongings, up off of the embankment onto areas that they felt that were off limits for the county or the police department," Garrow says. "We didn't see them impound or discard identified property. They threw away what they considered trash and moved on."

Over at Chapman Avenue, where the tent town is visible from the 5 Freeway, homeless frantically packed up their belongings away from the riverbed up towards the rocky terrain just under the overpass itself. They continue to wait for the sweep to wrap up.

A notice posted on November 9 warned of strict enforcement to come of county ordinances, including anti-camping and bicycle parking in the area. But what happened three days later was no hardcore eviction crackdown. "OC Public Works clears the flood control channel that includes the Santa Ana River throughout the year," says OCPW spokesman Shannon Widor. "When it comes to members of the homeless encampments, that is done probably a couple times a year."

Many homeless feel moving up to the embankments will keep them safe from El Niño
Many homeless feel moving up to the embankments will keep them safe from El Niño
Photo by Gabriel San Roman

The county promises to return to the riverbed soon, only not for sweeps. With the winter months coming and expected rising water levels anticipated by El Niño, the outlook will be outreach. "Safety is a top priority so we have to go in there and really educate homeless members," says Widor. He adds that groups like 211OC and Mercy House are being looked at as partners in the forthcoming effort.

To OC's north, Los Angeles is declaring a state of emergency for the homeless. Around these parts, cities like Anaheim find all kinds of ways to declare war on them instead, enforcing punitive ordinances without having adequate shelter space at the very least. Putting the cart before the horse pushed many people to the riverbed. "We've even heard of people being directed down into the riverbed by police," Garrow claims.

"When it comes to housing that people can afford, which is the real solution to homelessness, it's just practically nonexistent," says Garrow. "When it comes to shelters and transitional programs, by the county's own counts of its own beds, there's enough to shelter about half of all people who are homeless on any given night."

The proposed Kraemer Place shelter the county will be voting on tomorrow would only add 200 more beds to the equation. It's still not nearly enough as El Niño looms. The homeless have already set their encampment back up at Ball Road after the sweeps.

"If they get flooded out, they'll go somewhere else," Garrow says. "If there's no adequate shelter, it's like a game of musical chairs."

Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2

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