[This was originally published in the OC Register on September 3, 2017]
Every few years a public policy issue grows so immense and overarching that it becomes the issue that a leader is judged by. For local elected officials it is usually something that so impacts their constituents, it taints everything they do in office. The taking of public property along the Santa Ana River Trail by homeless encampments is such an issue for leaders in Central Orange County, specifically the Orange County Board of Supervisors and city councils of Anaheim and Orange.
When completed, the Santa Ana River Trail will be about 100 miles long, and will connect the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains. The trail will be one of the longest urban recreation parkways in the United States. Tens of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to build this trail. Proposition 84, passed by voters in 2006, alone allocates $30 million to the trail with $10 million coming directly to Orange County. The city of Anaheim has received and spent millions of federal, state and county grant dollars on the trail within their borders.
Sadly, the taxpayers who own and paid for this trail have had their access denied due to legitimate safety concerns. This out-of-control situation is tantamount to a taking of property from a property owner, in this case the taxpayer, and those in charge need to step up and provide some leadership.
We all understand that homelessness is a huge issue with a lot of moving parts such as lack of affordable housing, early releases from prison, drug addiction, mental health issues and unemployment. Providing leadership can be hard. Actually, providing good leadership is always hard; but the constituents that voted our elected officials into office are tired of watching and waiting. We expect action.
On a positive note, the county of Orange has recently opened two shelters; one in a former bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana, the second in Anaheim that will eventually serve 200 men and women. However, more is needed; individual cities also need to step up.
Senate Bill 2, voted into law a decade ago, requires cities to identify in their housing element a zone or zones where emergency shelters are allowed as a permitted use without a conditional use permit or other discretionary permit. Every city in Orange County was required to do this. Every city in Orange County has an area where an emergency shelter can be built. Almost 10 years later, the city of Orange has just opened what is believed to be the first homeless shelter of any type established under SB2 in Orange County. Where are the others?
Central Orange County has a public safety and public health crisis on their hands. The encampments are growing and those that live there appear to be settling in for the long haul. At a recent Anaheim City Council meeting residents from both Anaheim and Orange who live along the trail spoke of increased crime in their neighborhoods and how unsafe they felt. A local resident’s group, O.C. Residents United, has started an online petition to “take back the Santa Ana River Trail,” and has collected approximately 11,000 signatures to date. At that same City Council meeting, Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray proposed that Anaheim declare a state of emergency. Her action plan is to provide assistance to those who want to find permanent shelter, give fair warning to those who do not that they will not be allowed to stay, and have law enforcement end the criminal activity in the riverbed. This would be a great start.
I don’t know anyone that is unwilling to reach out and help someone in need. Every resource possible should be used to support and uplift those who ask for or who need our help. But public safety and compassion are not mutually exclusive. The county and the impacted cities need to stop pointing jurisdictional fingers at each other and work together to clean out the criminal activity and remove those who refuse services. Those who are truly homeless should expect our best efforts and protection. Those who chose a home-free lifestyle cannot be allowed to take over public property paid for by the taxpayers.
Carolyn Cavecche is president and CEO of the Orange County Taxpayers Association and a former mayor of Orange.