What happens to the Santa Ana River homeless population?

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For months Orange County officials and homeless advocates have been locked in a dispute over what to do about the estimated 500 to 1,000 people living in encampments along the Santa Ana River.

View of Anaheim’s Honda Center from one of the homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River. Officials worry if the camps continue, the riverfront will become the Skid Row of Orange County. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

Citing concerns about flooding and squalid conditions in the camps, authorities began an effort last month to evict people from the riverfront and start dismantling the camp sites. But the evictions were stopped last week after U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter issued a temporary halt to the evictions, citing the haphazard and hurried nature of the process. That decision occurred after a Catholic group filed a lawsuit, arguing the evictions amount to a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Angel Knoll, who prefers the nickname “Batman,” has lived in homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River for two years. Echoing others here, Knoll says the enforcement of municipal anti-camping ordinances in Orange County forced the homeless to move here. “Basically, cops have pushed us here,” says Knoll. “I was woken up in Buena Park and told to come here. The cops said they wouldn’t bother us and would let us be.” Photo: Saul Gonzalez

On Tuesday, a hearing will begin in Judge Carter’s Santa Ana courtroom to determine what should happen next. Homeless advocates would like the judge to issue an injunction halting any further efforts to remove people from the riverfront. Ultimately, they’d also like a ruling that ends anti-camping and loitering ordinances passed by the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange.

Many of the homeless individuals KCRW talked to along the Santa Ana River say enforcement of those ordinances is what forced them to move to the riverfront in the first place. They said police officers and Orange County sheriff’s deputies told them they wouldn’t be bothered there.

There’s also the question of where people can go if they do get evicted. Although Orange County has opened up more temporary homeless shelters, like a new 200-bed facility in an Anaheim industrial park, homeless advocates say there are few options available for long-term housing in the county. Many of those camped out said they prefer the relative freedom of living along the Santa Ana River compared to the rules and regulations of homeless shelters.

Byron Jones and Michael Diehl with Michael’s dog Osiris. Byron and Michael say they’d like long-term permanent housing, but prefer camping at the river rather than going to a shelter. Orange County officials say many homeless residents in the camps are wrestling with mental problems and drug addiction, making it difficult to convince them to take advantage of help. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

At the heart of the Santa Ana River conflict is where the line should be drawn between the civil rights of those living on the streets and the authority of cities and counties to control their public spaces. Municipalities across California that are grappling with growing homeless populations will be closely watching what happens in Judge Carter’s courtroom.

Meanwhile the homeless fighting to remain at the Santa Ana River have launched their own outreach efforts to sway public opinion, including opening a media affairs tent at one of their encampments.

Diedre and Chris Allen, who live in one of the Santa Ana River encampments, stand in front of a newly opened media center where they volunteer. Diedre and Chris say they’re trying to get their arguments for being left alone out to the general public. Photo: Saul Gonzalez