Politics

Orange County's homeless living in the riverbed are warned of potential El Niño floods

Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a "sweep" of areas in Orange County that may be affected by coming storms on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Many homeless individuals have to scramble to find shelter and storage for their personal items to avoid being arrested for camping and having their belongings and animals confiscated.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a "sweep" of areas in Orange County that may be affected by coming storms on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Many homeless individuals have to scramble to find shelter and storage for their personal items to avoid being arrested for camping and having their belongings and animals confiscated.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Sanitation workers with Orange County Public Works make one last walk-around on this part of the Santa Ana River Trail looking for stuff left behind from homeless camps. November 12, 2015.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Gloria Shoemake, 42, watches over her belonging while her boyfriend and his brother find them a new spot to camp in the Santa Ana River Trail after sanitation workers from Orange County started clearing the riverbed on November 12, 2015.
Erika Aguilar
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Johnny Cook, 55, lives in the Santa Ana Riverbed with five other homeless men. "It felt safer to me," he said about deciding more than a year ago to camp there.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Ken Godbey, 42 and Johnny Cook, 55, wait with their belongings for Orange County Public Works crews to clear out the riverbed where they camped with four other homeless men.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Orange county law enforcement and public works performing a
Homeless people camping in the Santa Ana River Trail said police officers walked the riverbed two days ago posting notices and warning people that Orange County Public Works crews would be clearing the riverbed on November 12, 2015.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC


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In a folding chair at the top of a Santa Ana River trail entrance, Gloria Shoemake kept watch over her things: boxes of pots and dishes, blankets, pillows, and duffle bags of clothes. 

"Most shelters don't take animals," Shoemake said, 42. "I'm not giving up my animals."

So the question now was where to go. 

Days ago, police officers walked the riverbed posting letters that Orange County Public Works would be conducting a cleanup. And on Thursday, they made good on that promise.

Like many localities in Southern California, Orange County is preparing for potential flooding brought by El Niño, and that means clearing debris from flood channels like the Santa Ana River. But it also means displacing hundreds of  homeless who've found shelter in the channels.

In a recent homeless census, an estimated 71 people were found living in the Santa Ana River bed, which stretches 30 miles from the Orange County-Riverside County line to the ocean in Huntington Beach. 

“People truly have nowhere else to be,” said Eve Garrow,  a policy analyst focusing on homelessness for the ACLU of Southern California in Orange County. She said housing options for the homeless are limited.

On November 30, the county’s emergency winter shelter opens at the Santa Ana and Fullerton Armories. Up to 200 homeless people can sleep on mats at each of the facilities but must be out by the morning.

The Armories aren’t permanent emergency shelters. So many turn to the river bed.

Shoemake, 42, was told she had to be out or else face ticketing, arrest, and loss of her possessions. 

“I can’t afford to get arrested,” she said.

Early Thursday morning, she and her boyfriend and his brother dragged their tents out of the rocky riverbed side.

There were several piles of boxes, blue tarps and bicycles on the trail where the homeless protected their things from “The Crusher,” a dump truck. Some hid their belongings in the tunnels.

Crews from the county tossed what appeared to be trash into The Crusher and stuff that appeared to belong to a camp, such as bike wheels and boxes, was taken to storage in a county facility, where it can stay for up to 90 days to be claimed, said Shannon Widor, a spokesperson for O.C. Public Works.

Widor said the county is obligated to keep the riverbed clear, as El Niño winter storms are predicted to produce a gushing river that might easily sweep up tents with homeless people inside.

“There could be tens of feet of water and we don’t want them to underestimate it,” he said.

But Johnny Cook, 55, says he doesn't feel safe in the shelters either. 

“It felt safer down here,” said Johnny Cook, 55 who started living with about six men in an encampment more than a year ago.

He complained shelters aren’t flexible; some require people to be checked-in a certain time, he said. Cook often leaves camp to search for aluminum cans for money. 

“I kind of like this,” he said, referring to living in the riverbed. “I mean, I don’t like it but it’s a better alternative.”

Others won’t leave the riverbed camps because shelters don’t allow pets. Shoemake said crowded shelters make her uneasy.

To help relieve that crowding, Orange County supervisors plan to  build a year-round homeless shelter that could house up to 200 people. They're expected to discuss that plan on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, the homeless who call the Santa Ana River Trail home wait for the officers, the sanitation workers and The Crusher to move along.

“We’ll probably move it back there … later,” Cook said standing by his pile of possessions up on the riverbed.