Orange County is moving to increase law enforcement in and around the homeless encampments that line the Santa Ana River. It’s part of a six-month plan to clear the camps and find permanent housing for the hundreds of people living there.
The county Board of Supervisors is expected to officially request the increased patrols at its board meeting on Tuesday. The board is also requesting that the sheriff's department work with law enforcement agencies from nearby cities to develop a coordinated plan for addressing crime around the homeless encampments.
Nearby residents have increasingly voiced concern about the encampments, which have ballooned in recent years. A recent survey found more than 400 homeless people living in a roughly 2-mile stretch along the river behind Angel Stadium and the Honda Center.
Lt. Jeff Puckett, who oversees the Orange County Sheriff Department’s homeless outreach team, said the team was switching its focus from almost entirely social service outreach to a combination of outreach and law enforcement.
“It’s undeniable that there is a criminal element that does exist out there,” he said. “This is not something where we’re looking at necessarily the homeless population but what we feel is the criminal element that’s victimizing the homeless population."
Puckett said the sheriff’s department will crack down on victim-based crimes like assaults and robberies in the riverbed camps. He said he hopes that will also help lessen crime in surrounding neighborhoods.
Authorities from cities that border the Santa Ana River in central Orange County, including Anaheim and Orange, are fielding increasing complaints from residents about the encampments and associated crime.
Tim Paarni, who manages the Park Royale Mobile Home Park, which borders the river in Orange, said crime has increased dramatically in the park over the past several years.
“In the last 14 months we’ve had over 160 bikes stolen,” he said.
Paarni said people living in the adjacent homeless encampment constantly break street lights around the mobile home park, pilfer construction material and tap fire hydrants for water.
“We’ve had residents who have moved out because of it,” he said, adding that several others planned to sell their homes and move in the near future.
Some homeless people camped along the river have also complained about crime.
Mohammed Aly, a vocal advocate for the homeless, agreed that crime was a problem. But he suspects that the sheriff’s department also plans to crack down on minor violations that would make life even harder for homeless people.
“If somebody has a generator because they’re powering a cooler, or a fan, or a charger so that they can keep their phone charged, the county could essentially fight them,” he said.
Aly also said neighboring law enforcement agencies have begun searching people at random as they emerge from the riverbed onto city streets.
“Now many of them are scared to come out of the riverbed," he said. "How is this problem going to be solved if the county sheriff's and the police departments are harassing people for trying to stay alive?”
Lt. Puckett said the sheriff’s department wouldn't rule out cracking down on code violations in the camps in the future. “But for right now, we’re going to be looking at victim-based crimes,” he said.
The county is two months into a $750,000 pilot program whose aim is to find permanent housing for the homeless people living along the river and eventually clear the camps. City Net, the nonprofit organization that is heading up the program, recently told the Orange County Register that it had relocated 45 people from the river.
Some advocates for the homeless, including Aly, say the county has thus far failed to adequately ramp up access to basic services, like bathrooms, which is supposed to be part of the county’s plan. Aly has been trying for months to get permission to place portable toilets near some of the largest encampments, close to Angel Stadium.
The county has balked on the issue of providing more toilets, although it did recently expand the hours of a public bathroom next to the Santa Ana River bike path. Those facilities, which are about a mile walk from the camps near the stadium, are now open 24 hours. Private security guards are stationed at the bathrooms from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Anaheim considers state of emergency on homelessness
Anaheim’s city council is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to declare a state of emergency regarding the homeless population living along the Santa Ana River.
A declaration of emergency would be largely symbolic, although the proposal does include some concrete actions. These include directing city staff to work with adjacent cities and Orange County to beef up efforts to get homeless people into shelters. It would also call for enforcing laws and health and safety codes in and around the encampments.
The proposal also calls for expediting building permits and waiving fees for organizations that want to open shelters in the city.
Nearby residents and business owners have increasingly voiced concerns about sanitary conditions and about crime and safety issues associated with the encampments.
Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said homelessness was the city's most pressing issue.