A year ago, Victor Pacheco set up camp on the Santa Ana River bike trail near where Segerstrom Avenue in Santa Ana turns into Slater Avenue in Fountain Valley. He constructed a small tent of cardboard, wood and towels on a steep hill. Now, about 20 makeshift tents surround him—and Pacheco couldn't be happier.
"It only takes one seed to sprout a field of flowers," he says in Spanish as he takes in the midday scene. Many of Pacheco's neighbors are working or running errands, so it's lonelier than usual. But one of them, Francisco, returns on his bike in his Wienerschnitzel uniform. "We [the homeless] aren't best friends—we don't talk every day or know our personal stories—but we treat each other as neighbors," Pacheco continues. "We often lend each other food and water. I'm sick and live alone, so they check up on me and my cat. We make sure that we each keep our part of the river trail clean."
Pacheco's fellow homeless describe a similar idyll along Fountain Valley's stretch of the Santa Ana River. It's a place far removed from the rest of OC's homeless camps, mired in bureaucratic red tape, public scorn or Darwinian survival. A lot of the newer residents came from the large encampment near the Orange Crush that was literally buried under boulders and dirt three months ago. And when they arrived here, they learned the most important rule quickly: Don't fuck it up.
Here live characters out of a Steinbeck novel, creating a vibrant community in the face of wrenching poverty. Pacheco—who has been homeless for seven years—is shoeless at the moment because the soles of his last pair were worn through. Nevertheless, he keeps his space and surrounding area—even the nearby street—clean with a broom that he found in the trash.
Right across from Pacheco is a small piece of land that was just dry dirt for decades until a woman came to live below the bridge around the same time Pacheco did. "I've always loved flowers and decorating, so I do what I can with what I have," she says. She declines to give her name; instead, she shows off her urban oasis: orchids, petunias and marigolds; squash and tomatoes; fruit trees such as apple and lime; even a pineapple plant. Ceramic deer and a big turtle serve as decorations, along with a scarecrow. There are bird feeders, a birdbath, a cage with two green-and-yellow parakeets, a wishing well that the woman built herself, and solar-powered lights around the area so that it even looks nice at night.
Everything was either found by her, given to her by other homeless, or bought with earnings from the recycables she collects. "Both city and county officials have seen what I have created, and they have complimented it and just ask that I keep it clean," the woman claims. "I hope that they continue to allow me to keep this as it is because it's my hobby. I enjoy doing it, and it seems that people enjoy looking at it."
"I've been here for over a year, and it's great," says Chris, who has been homeless since 2012. He used to live in "The Jungle," the area near the Victoria Street bridge in Costa Mesa. There, a man burned down Chris' tent and his belongings because Chris wouldn't sell him his bike; the other man stole it anyway. "The cops come by, but they don't harass us; instead, they ask if we need any help with anything," Chris continues. "Once in a while, cyclists will be the only ones who harass us and yell out insults, but we all just ignore them. We are a community here."
Ron and Marissa are about three tents down from Chris. They have been a couple for nine years and homeless for eight; their dog Choco keeps them company.
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"I've lived everywhere on the trail, up and down the coast," says Ron as he sits on a lawn chair with Choco sleeping by his feet. "I've rented rooms in many cities near and far, but Fountain Valley has been by far the best. [He and Marissa] own bikes—we've never once locked them up, and we aren't worried that they'll get stolen. It's not that type of place."
Ron says even the businesses in the area don't hassle the Fountain Valley encampment, as long as people don't get too loud. It's a far cry from Costa Mesa, says Marissa. There, she claims, park rangers and police harassed everyone and even followed homeless out of the city. "Here [in Fountain Valley], some police officers interact with us and get to know us," she says while putting on mascara. Another young homeless man comes over to sit on the small patio set Ron and Marissa have. He begins to play on his guitar and sing a song. "I once had a policeman tell my social worker where I was because she needed to get a hold of me," Marissa continues. "It was very nice of him to go out of his way and do that. . . . It's nice to be treated with dignity and compassion." (Fountain Valley police did not return a call for comment.)
However, Fountain Valley residents interviewed by the Weekly weren't thrilled about the homeless in their city. More and more tents greet the thousands of commuters who enter from the city's eastern entrances on Edinger Avenue, Warner Avenue, Segerstrom Avenue and Macarthur Boulevard. But they give credit to the homeless for keeping things civil. "I've never encountered one to be disruptive or aggressive, so I have nothing bad to say about the local homeless," says a Fountain Valley resident, who asks to remain anonymous, as she walks out of Costco.
As the day continues, more homeless walk down the trail to their tents and greet one another. Ron and Marissa offer folks pizza and gummy worms. "We are gypsies, never getting stuck in one place, but we like it here," Ron says as he holds on to Marissa. "We might just stay for a good while."