In the two years he’s lived along the concrete banks of the Santa Ana River, David Harris has made himself feel at home. He’s fashioned walls of plastic tarp around a series of tents and a central work area where he repairs bicycles for a bit of cash.
“Oh, yeah, we are fully self-contained,” said Harris one recent morning along the river. “We have solar panels. We have generators. We have everything.”
Harris is one of more than a 1,000 people who live in hundreds of makeshift shelters and tents along the Santa Ana River, with most concentrated in Anaheim.
But the homeless community living near the river is facing eviction. Worried about squalid conditions in the camps and the threat of flooding the river presents, Orange County officials are making plans to dismantle the tent cities this weekend.
Bridget Powers, a former bank teller and mortgage loan officer, has been homeless for five years and has pitched her tent next to a small garden she’s planted.
She said the looming evictions are an example of Orange County trying to sweep its growing homeless population under the rug, moving them from place to place until conditions become intolerable.
“You can’t bounce people from here to there,” said Powers. “All they are doing are bouncing them from place to place to place, and expecting them to get their ‘s’ together, their shit, excuse my language.”
Michael Herz, who’s lived along the river for about a year agreed.”Everybody is frustrated,” he said. “They don’t tell us where to go. And when we get where we’re going, we have to move again.”
But Orange County officials say they’re ready to help those living along the Santa Ana River.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to connect people with services in a very humane and empathetic way,” said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer.
The supervisor’s district includes the stretch of the river where many of the larger homeless encampments are located.
Although he acknowledges more needs to be done, Spitzer says the county is taking steps to shelter the homeless, including those along the river. He points to the temporary shelters, including a new 200 bed facility in an industrial park in Anaheim.
“As of today, we have room in every facility we have available,” said Spitzer.
However, Spitzer said that many people don’t respond to offers of help, including assistance with finding shelter. He expects that will be an issue when the homeless are evicted from the Santa Ana River.
“I would submit to you when we clear the river bed,” said Spitzer, “we’re going to know if people want services or not. And it’s going to be a day of reckoning for some of these folks, and they are going to have to make decisions.”
But homeless advocates say the existence of homeless camps along the Santa Ana River reveal how Orange County officials haven’t found effective solutions.
Ford says law enforcement has a history of rousting the homeless in Orange County communities and telling them they’d be better off living in the relative isolation of the Santa Ana River instead of in neighborhoods and commercial districts.
Larry Ford, a veteran who’s strung a big “Don’t Tread On Me” flag outside of his tent, said he had been told to camp out by the river. “Everybody you see here was told to be here,” said Ford. “They were told ‘go on over there, go on up the river.'”
Paul Leon, founder of the Illumination Foundation, a non-profit that provides housing and health care services to the indigent of Orange County, said that even with temporary shelters, officials haven’t done enough to create longterm housing with supportive services for those now living on the streets. “If I was going to give them a grade, I’d say a D,” he said.
Leon believes evicting people from the Santa Ana River will just force them to pitch their tents somewhere else.
“I guarantee you when they clear everybody out of the riverbed, they will go into local communities,” said Leon.” And it might be a park, a beach, or another area that they’ll congregate in because there is absolutely no other place for them to go.”
At the Santa Ana River encampments, many said they’ve seen the preparations for the coming evictions, including notices posted by the county telling people they need to pack their belongings and get ready to move.
But Bridget Powers says the encampment has become a community and even if they’re offered shelter and other kinds of help after the evictions, most would prefer to stay.
“These are some of the most talented and friendly people I’ve ever met,” said Powers. “They take care of each other. We all do, one way or another. And, you know, if someone is suffering, we try to help. And I don’t see that in the everyday world.”