Politics

El Niño storms test the hardiness of Orange County’s homeless

Jon Chandler, 33, rode out this week's El Nino storms inside his tent pitched on higher ground along the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange. Flood waters released from dam gates could force him to move to. January 7, 2015.
Jon Chandler, 33, rode out this week's El Nino storms inside his tent pitched on higher ground along the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange. Flood waters released from dam gates could force him to move to. January 7, 2015.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Jon Chandler, 33, rode out this week's El Nino storms inside his tent pitched on higher ground along the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange. Flood waters released from dam gates could force him to move to. January 7, 2015.
Storm waters flow steady down the Santa Ana River in Orange where lots of homeless people camp. January 7, 2015
Erika Aguilar/KPCC
Jon Chandler, 33, rode out this week's El Nino storms inside his tent pitched on higher ground along the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange. Flood waters released from dam gates could force him to move to. January 7, 2015.
Signs warn visitors to the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange that anyone who wades into storm flood waters in the riverbed will be ticketed. January 7, 2015.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC


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Brown storm water in the Santa Ana River flowed steady in front of Jon Chandler as his Chihuahua mix shivered on his half covered shoulders.

“The tarps were going every where,” Chandler, 33, said. “We tried to keep everything dry but some of it got wet.”

The first string of El Niño’s winter storms poured more than five inches of rain in parts of Orange County’s mountain areas, according to the National Weather Service Thursday afternoon. Other areas of the county saw roughly 2.5 inches of rain.

It’s enough for the Army Corps of Engineers to release a steady flow of floodwaters this week at Prado Dam that has turned the sandy Santa Ana River into a real, rippling waterway.

Sharon O'Banion has lived with her dog along the river, under the 5 Freeway, for 11 years. She said officials visited her camp Thursday morning to warn water releases could cause the river to swell.

“I'll just have to do whatever I have to do ... go higher,” O’Banion said.

The storms hit Southern California at the worst time for Orange County. The two county-run Armory shelters in Santa Ana and Fullerton closed Tuesday for National Guard drills until January 10.

In the meantime, homeless clients looking for nightly shelter are being bused to the First Evangelical Free Christian Church gym in Fullerton. There’s enough space for 400 people, said O.C. Community Services Director Karen Roper, in charge of county homeless services.

However, there are only about 200 people staying there, she said.

“We’re not sure why we are not at full capacity,” Roper said. “That’s why we are trying to beef up transportation.”

The county has asked Mercy House, the homeless services group that operates the Armory shelters, to look into adding bus pick-ups at or near the Santa Ana River where at least 440 people are known to camp in the riverbeds, according to a county count in December.

There are an estimated 4,452 homeless people in Orange County on any given night, according to last year's homeless count. Half of them are unsheltered, living in cars, tents, and on the street. 

Recognizing that the Armory shelters lack capacity, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved last month $500,000 for emergency, bad weather bed space during the El Niño winter season. That contract went to homeless services operator Mercy House.

How many extra beds and when those will be available is unknown right now. Roper said Mercy House is trying to firm up temporary shelter sites that would be open based on weather conditions.

This week’s storms will serve as a barometer for municipalities gauging how much shelter space, beds and supplies are needed for the remainder of the winter. Los Angeles and Orange County homeless services officials report their regular winter shelter sites aren’t yet full.

Roper said shelters sometime see more people at the end of the month when benefits and paychecks are reduced. 

"If you have the opportunity to sleep in a motel room with a little more privacy you probably would do that but when the money runs out then you might go to the shelter," she said.

Orange County healthcare workers, community services staff, deputies and non-profit groups are doing outreach Thursday and Friday to the homeless camping along the Santa Ana River bed, Roper said.

One homeless man pushing a grocery cart of blankets in a plastic bag near the river in Orange said he rode out Wednesday’s lightning storm at a Motel 6.

Back on the river bank, if Jon Chandler gets the cash, he might do the same next time. He doesn’t stay at shelters because he won’t leave his small dog behind.

“If I can have my dog there, I’ll go,” he said. “But if not, nah. I’ll be right out here with her.”