Homeless Struggle in Affluent Orange County

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — Lack of affordable housing and harassment from authorities in Orange County have forced hundreds of homeless people in Santa Ana to the riverbed.

Hundreds who live beneath streets and highways at the river bed struggle to get by without restrooms and access to clean water. The hoped they could avoid law enforcement, which has enforced ordinances preventing them from sleeping, sitting and resting, according to an ACLU report, “Nowhere to Live.”

At a public meeting of the Orange County Board of Supervisors this week several homelessness advocates pointed to ongoing challenges facing the riverbed dwellers.

More than one member of the public praised the five-member governing board at its Tuesday morning meeting for fixing a broken water fountain so that people have access to drinking water. But she said there is more work to be done.

“One of the biggest problems facing them right now is access to bathrooms,” the woman said during public comment at the board hearing room at Civic Center Plaza. “It’s one of the biggest complaints from the apartment complex nearby as well. To make things safer and more sanitary for all residents in the area we need access to portable restrooms in the riverbed.”

Fourth District Supervisor Shawn Nelson said at the end of the meeting that immediate action is needed for homeless people in Orange County. He called for funding to provide temporary housing that could include tents and other amenities at county-owned lots.

“We’re never going to make progress until we can at least figure out how to answer the question [of how] we [can] have a bed for everyone that wants it,” Nelson said, according to Voice of OC. “We have to at least be there for them, and then we’ll start working backwards with why people don’t want the services, if they don’t.”

Two lawsuits filed this year highlighted the challenges facing Orange County’s homeless as they try to get by without resources most people take for granted.

The ACLU filed a civil rights lawsuit in January, highlighting the plight of those living in an encampment on the riverbed after the OC Department of Public Works erected 6-foot high fencing for a construction project the group said was penning them in.

A second lawsuit filed the same month challenged Orange County law enforcement’s practice of seizing and destroying belongings and said the county was using the construction project to force people away from the riverbed.

Orange County installed the fencing for a flood control and security project and used the area to stockpile large rocks and sand. County spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the idea that the project was conceived to displace people living there was not correct.

“The project is a maintenance and security project that public works is required to do for the maintenance and security of the flood control channel to ensure that when we do have rainstorms, like what we have been seeing over the last few months, that the water does not go out into the neighborhood,” Braun said in a telephone interview. “So the area that they utilized for that project is an area that has been utilized for stockpiling materials in the past. And it’s really important to flood control for the entire county.”

The ACLU of Southern California settled the case later in February after the county agreed to provide transportation to and from a storage facility so people could pick up their belongings at a Lake Forest maintenance yard 20 miles away from the encampment.

In the second lawsuit, filed by Tammy Schuler and other homeless people, U.S. District Judge David Carter granted a temporary restraining order to provide additional protections for people’s belongings. It requires county officials to give them 24 hours notice before they remove property and to make sure that essential belongings, including tents, sleeping bags, identification and medication, are stored within a 15-minute walk from the place officers take them.

Until late 2016, Schuler said in the lawsuit, 500 people were living in the city’s Civic Center when the city began installing fences in public places. Police officers said they would be left alone if they moved to the riverbed, Schuler said.

Braun conceded that city and county ordinances had contributed to the rise of the homeless population on the riverbed, but added that the riverbed is not a safe place to live. She said the county is working to solve homelessness with several proposals, including affordable and permanent housing.

She said that in 2016 the county opened an emergency shelter with 400 beds at the Santa Ana Civic Center and would soon open another shelter in Anaheim with an additional 100 beds.

“The county is doing quite a bit and doing our best to move the needle in the areas that we can control, and we’re hoping to continue to partner with the cities and the faith-based groups and the nonprofits to really provide all the resources that we can,” Braun said.

ACLU SoCal called the settlement a welcome development but said it did nothing to tackle the larger problem of homelessness in the county.

“The OC is one of the most affluent counties in the nation, but has yet to adequately fund its Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness that it passed back in 2010 and provide permanent supportive housing for its most vulnerable residents,” ACLU SoCal said in a statement.

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