OC Public Works begins displacing homeless from Santa Ana riverbed

- Orange County public works officials began maintenance work Monday on a 2,300-foot section of the Santa Ana riverbed near the Honda Center in Anaheim, displacing a few dozen transients in the process.

"It just hurts... people don't realize that." A tearful Jennifer Herbst said standing beside her shopping cart of possessions describing what it feels like to be homeless. "It's hard to find your next meal...it's hard to cool off in the summer months...it's hard to take a nap." Herbst cried. 

Homeless encampments have popped up along the riverbed, prompting complaints from bicyclists and hikers along the trails and presenting legal issues for the county, as homeless advocates have sued in federal court to
curtain maintenance in those areas.

"We need to stand up for human beings. We've got disabled vets, people in wheel chairs...we've got to stand up for each other." said homeless activist Heidi Zimmermann who accuses the county of destroying property of some of the homeless - a charge the county strongly denies. 

The Orange County Board of Supervisors last month approved spending $750,000 to hire a contractor to tackle an array of issues related to homelessness in the county.

The contractor's main goal is to help get the mass congregation of transients along the riverbed into shelters or more long-term housing elsewhere.

Last week, officials from the county's public works and healthcare agency departments began alerting transients along the riverbed in the Anaheim area along Katella Avenue that maintenance was to begin Monday, meaning they had to find somewhere else to stay.

"We've seen about 30-40 encampments - 40, 50, 60 individuals that we're working with so we know it's a growing problem." said Shannon Widor, Public Information Officer for Orange County Public Works.

It says it will work with people to find shelter but called their presence here problematic. "Physical threats to cyclists along the public bike trail from trash and debris...to drug use." said Widor.

Most of the transients moved to the west side of the riverbed, which is a public bike trail. The east side is prohibited to the public, Widor said. Orange County Healthcare Agency officials offered assistance to the transients on getting shelter elsewhere, such as the one in downtown Santa Ana, but they all refused, Widor said.

"There are still a handful of people here," Widor said this afternoon. "But it's gone exceptionally well. We think some folks voluntarily left well in advance of today. And many people left today."

Officials were helping the transients sort through their belongings to determine what's trash and what needs to be stored, Widor said. "We set up a storage area along the river, kind of near Angel Stadium," Widor said. "We'll store those belongings for up to 90 days."

Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has led efforts to help the area's homeless over the years, said it's a complex situation with no easy solution. But, Nelson said, the riverbed is not an appropriate place for
anyone. "It would be no different than pitching a tent on an airfield at John Wayne Airport," Nelson said. "Just because it's available dirt doesn't make it available for camping... The flood-control channel is a workplace. We have trucks going in and out of there."

There's also an environmental concern to keep in mind, as well, Nelson said. "It (the riverbed) goes direct to the ocean," he said. "Chemicals and batteries, lighter fluid, gasoline for a generator -- none of that stuff is
supposed to be in the river bed."

The riverbed encampments have also led to conflicts with bikers and hikers on the trail, Nelson said.

"If you go down there, it's not just the sad homeless people, but there are also some disrespectful people there. Trash everywhere and they're pretty aggressive to the bikers saying, 'This is my turf,' " Nelson said.

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