County of Orange Unsuccessfully Playing Whack-A-Mole With Homeless Encampments

Most of the homeless encampment on the Orange-side of the Santa Ana River Trail has simply moved across the river and next to the Angel Stadium parking lot.

The homeless have departed the Orange-side of the Santa Ana River trail between Chapman Avenue and Orangewood, since the County of Orange began depositing rip-rap and earth materials where a huge homeless shanty town had stood and grown for several months. Crews from the County of Orange have been on-site all week cleaning up the large piles of debris left behind by the homeless. Here is video of them at work on March 1, after having cleared away much of the initial mountain of detritus:

While visiting the clean up site on Thursday, I struck up a conversation with a young homeless woman named Ashley. She had bicycled there towing a small plastic trailer and descended into the river bed to retrieve several bicycle frames. She was careful to turn her bike and trailer upside-down to make them harder for someone to take while she was in the river bed. She told me her boyfriend earned money by repairing bicycles for other homeless people, and that she’d hidden the frames in the river bed so she could retrieve them before the clean-up crew got to them.

Ashley is 22 years old, with the look and expression of someone much older. Her face was weathered with sores or blisters on her lips, and her left eye twitched constantly. She told me she’s been homeless since leaving the foster care system at age 20. Ashley said me her mother and grandmother and uncle were also homeless, and living on the river bank directly opposite the now-defunct shanty town.

When I asked her where her boyfriend was, she replied “he’s locked up” and she now living in a tent next to the Anaheim Stadium parking lot with another girl. She complained about having seizures from the stress. When I asked if she’d gone to the emergency room or sought medical attention, Ashley responded “What would be the use?” I asked if social services visited the encampment and offered services and assistance to help her and others get better and become self-reliant, and she shrugged, saying “I don’t know.”  I asked if she could go to the Kraemer Homeless Shelter when it opens up in a couple of months, and she was adamantly opposed: “It’s like a group home, sleeping on cots with other people.” She said she’d had enough of that in the foster system. Besides, she said, she was trying to re-connect to her homeless mom, uncle and grandmother – although she didn’t get along with them and wouldn’t stay with them.

Ashley was not operating at 100%, due to the life she had been living. However, it seemed to me she was part of the homeless population known euphemistically as the “service resistant.” Each suggestion for getting help and getting out of that life was met by an objection or excuse as to why it wouldn’t work. It was heartbreaking to talk to this young women, not least because of her unwillingness to accept real help.

Eviction notice re-posted by the County of Orange at site of now-shuttered homeless encampment on Santa Ana River Trail between Chapman Avenue and Orangewood.

At the former shanty town site, crews wearing thick gloves and coveralls used rakes to stuff a variety of abandoned property – primarily clothes, sleeping bags and blankets – into large black plastic trash bags, which were tagged and piled on pallets in a fenced off area. The ground was littered with tooth brushes and other sundries and toilets, busted pallets, DVDs, CDs. Nearly a dozen propane tanks were clustered in one area. Much of the clothing and sleeping bags appeared to be in perfectly good condition – just left behind. It made one wonder why the ACLU went court accusing the County of treating the homeless squatters inhumanely and making it overly burdensome to re-claim property given the sheer volume of property was simply abandoned and left strewn across the river trail between Chapman and Orangewood.

OC Daily queried County spokesperson Carrie Braun about the process, and received this response:

We continue to work with the individuals encamped in the project area to identify what they’d like to maintain and what they’d like to discard.

Regarding the encampments on the west side of the flood control channel- as we have requested that individuals encamped in the project area on the east side of the flood control channel voluntarily relocate, we have offered resources that have been largely declined. We are not directing individuals where to relocate. The County is working to address the status of individuals encamped along the flood control channel that meets the needs of all parties involved.

Encampments Quickly Move Up and Over The River
Those homeless who read the writing on the wall had already re-located across the river to more landscaped section below the Motel 6 on Chapman Avenue by the time the eviction process began, as well as next to the Renaissance apartment homes complex on the other side of Chapman.

The bulk of the shanty town residents quickly re-deployed to the east bank of the river next to the Angel Stadium parking lot, setting up camp amongst the trees and on both sides of the bike trail.

According to sources, as many of half of the inhabitants of these homeless encampments are felons released under Proposition 47 – which was supported by same progressive advocacy groups and activists who oppose the removal of these shanty towns from public property and support the repeal of municipal anti-camping ordinances. Walking through the encampment next to Angel Stadium, it appears to be populated primarily by tatted-up, hard-looking males in their twenties.  I didn’t see a single family, and few females.

I saw one tent compound with an outside propane heater situated next to a tree and surrounded by dry brush. According to sources, the homeless there have already been cutting through the chain link fence separating them from the stadium parking lot and have tried tapping into to power lines. A tractor was reportedly stolen from an adjacent work site on stadium property. The Angels first home game is only a month away on April 7, and the presence of a camp filled with ex-felons next to a thousands of fans and cars raises obvious security and public safety concerns – or at least it ought to. The question is what the County is going to do about it. The answer thus far appears to be nothing.

It also raises questions about the limits of local government’s ability to “solve” the homeless problem. The dominant thinking – or at least the most vocal – is that government can end homelessness by applying enough “resources” – i.e. throwing money at the problem. That’s an illusion, albeit a powerful one. Take the War on Poverty, for example: half a century and trillions of dollars later, the nation’s poverty level has barely budged and social disintegration among the poor has dramatically worsened. The persistence and scope of homelessness is stems primarily from human nature – which no one can alter, least of all government. If it were merely a matter of material deprivation, then government check-writing would be more impactful. The reality is it as much, if not more, a matter of the spirit and the mind. Private charities such as the Orange County Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army do a much better job of helping the homeless achieve self-sufficiency because they can treat the whole person in a way no government can.

The County had and has every right to evict homeless camps from public property – especially parkland built for the enjoyment and benefit of the citizenry. Local governments should fight the ACLU’s truly radical agenda with every tool at its disposal. The ACLU and their cohorts are relentless and dedicated and intent on manufacturing a civil right to sleep and live wherever one pleases, and to force the taxpayers to subsidize it while being deprived of the use of public lands. Their argument is essentially this: unless government and/or taxpayers have a solution to a homeless person’s situation, then they have no right to prevent them from squatting on public property. The ACLU and its allies are trying to make vagrancy a human right and a legally protected lifestyle.

The County should be forthright about preventing homeless encampments from springing up. As a civically engaged Orange resident put it to me, the policy ought to be “One is too many.” While the County had every right to store rip-rap and earth materials on the section of the river between Chapman and Orangewood, does anyone believe that had nothing to do with clearing out the sprawling shanty town? But camouflaging the true motivation behind such transparent pretexts is counter-productive. It took the County months and an enormous expenditure of energy and resources to clear one block of the river bank – while the encampment simply moved up and across the river in a matter of days. Is the County now going to pretend the landscaped river trail next to Angel Stadium, or below the Motel 6, are perfect locations to store rip-rap?

If local governments are going to prevail over the ACLU’s campaign to make these encampments a permanent part of our community landscape, they need to be direct, honest and determined in acting to preserve public property, especially public parks, for their intended purpose.

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