Supervisors, Anaheim Council set to act on removing homeless transients

Orange County supervisors agreed on Tuesday to step up law enforcement along riverbeds in Santa Ana and Anaheim in response to public safety concerns triggered by the growing homeless population in the areas.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer championed the action, but Supervisor Shawn Nelson said the move and other efforts the county has taken to address homelessness over the past several years will not solve the problem of where to put the transients living along the riverbed. Nelson argued that a "step one" proposal he made in the spring to provide immediate temporary shelter for the homeless has been stymied by NIMBYism.

"What we are missing right now is a step-one triage to get people off the river," Nelson said. "With the hurricanes going on where do you think these people go to for emergency shelter? They go to facilities that are cots, chow lines, showers and restrooms. It's pretty basic."

Nelson directed county officials earlier this year to identify possible places where temporary shelters could be erected, but even though such areas are zoned for the homeless, city officials in those areas have objected, he

"We have very few properties in our inventory," he said. "There are a very select few that could possibly house folks, but, guess what? Nobody wants it. None of my colleagues want it. None of the cities want it."

Nelson cited 100 acres in the Irvine area bordered by a "bus base, a freeway and a food bank, and it's zoned for homelessness, and we can't even have a discussion about temporarily housing people there because it's not politically popular."

Nelson said another property in Anaheim that was pegged for a shelter and is zoned for it also can't get any support.

"Even the site they bought for homelessness didn't get used for homelessness," he said.

Another facility the county has set up in Anaheim, which is bordered by the river, the freeway, a bridge overpass and a strip club, was "probably the most isolated place we could find in Orange County and people raised hell, so there's no place we're going to find that is acceptable."

Nelson also cited a spot in Huntington Beach, but officials and residents also objected because they said they have too many transients in the city.

"If your situation is that bad wouldn't you want to manage it?" Nelson said. "Nope, they didn't want to hear it."

Spitzer argued that efforts by the state to reduce prison overcrowding has led to more criminals among the homeless encampments. "We know there's a whole other element living on our streets, which is
completely jeopardizing public safety," Spitzer said. "I'm absolutely convinced that a large criminal element, assuming we pass this today, will immediately vacate the riverbed."

Spitzer said officials in Orange and Anaheim are now on board with helping to patrol the riverbed area where transients are residing.

"There are no laws on the riverbed today. It's the law of the land," Spitzer said. "And that's got to stop... We have to have an absolute vision to clear that riverbed and the public expects a time frame."

Spitzer also cited an outbreak of hepatitis C in San Diego County amonga homeless population there. He argued that the county has a responsibility to protect the transients and the employees who provide services to them.

County Executive Officer Frank Kim said the county is "building our system of care," which includes providing services to help transients get back on their feet, but enforcing the law is a key component of that approach to the overall problem.

"Not only do we have to protect that population, we also have to respond to the residents and businesses that surround the flood channel that are reporting issues that are directly connected to the population being there," Kim said.

Supervisor Andrew Do said when he proposed the law enforcement increase in June the intent was not to "clear out the riverbed. The way it is phrased is transmitting the wrong image of what we're trying to accomplish right now.

Ultimately the goal is to provide alternatives to people to transition out of the riverbed."

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett agreed that transients need a "reasonable period of time" to "clear out" of the riverbed. "We have to connect people to housing," Bartlett said.

Bartlett said the county's cities should be pressured to provide more affordable housing.

"We all want to work collaboratively as stake holders and get people into proper housing situations with wrap-around services so they can truly get back on their feet," Bartlett said.

An estimated 422 transients live between Chapman Avenue and Ball Road, according to county staff.

Anaheim City Council members will meet later Tuesday to consider collaborating with the county on the homeless issue on the flood control channels.

"It's complicated. It's one of the most complicated issues you can imagine," Mayor Tom Tait said. "Obviously, people shouldn't be living in the flood-control channel," he said. "It's not designed for that. It's for flood control... But the fact is they are and we have to now deal with it in a humane way."

The city's focus is primarily on law enforcement in the encampment, Tait said. "If people commit crimes there they will be held accountable whether they're homeless or not," Tait said.

Spitzer said part of the issue with law enforcement along the riverbed is that the county has had trouble forming an agreement on it with Anaheim. "We have not been able to get a (Memorandum of Understanding) with the city of Anaheim for the enforcement of laws on the riverbed," Spitzer said.

"So I'm going to (the Anaheim council meeting) to testify in front of that council and say, `Look, what you're saying sounds great, but, one, we're already doing it, and, two, the fact is you have not signed an MOU with the sheriff, which has made it nearly impossible to the enforce the laws there."

Undersheriff Don Barnes issued a statement saying, "Many people living in the riverbed legitimately need help and we are sympathetic to that, but we also need to address the criminal element there and the effect on the surrounding community."

Barnes said the department has plan to expand outreach efforts to the homeless. "Being homeless is not illegal, and we are called to protect the rights and civil liberties of everyone we serve," Barnes said.

"We will continue to collaborate with nonprofit and public safety agencies to offer a helping hand to those who have fallen on hard times, those battling mental illness and those struggling with addiction issues by connecting them with the appropriate resources and transitioning them out of the riverbed."

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