Orange County officials began removing homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River Wednesday in order to clear space to store boulders and sand used for flood protection and beach replenishment.
Tammy Schuler, who had had a sprawling camp next to Chapman Avenue, was among the first to be told she had to move immediately. The county had previously posted notices informing residents of the project, but most people in the encampments hadn’t moved before work got underway, according to county spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
Schuler piled her belongings Wednesday morning onto a cart, under the watch of county workers, sheriff’s deputies and homeless advocates.
An estimated 200 to 250 homeless people live in the area that’s to be vacated along the east side of the river between Angel Stadium and the I-5 overpass. The county largely tolerated the growing camp for months, but Braun said it now needs the land. Piles of large boulders have already been dumped in some areas.
"This is one of our largest public works sites, and it’s central in the county,” Braun said.
County supervisor Shawn Nelson, whose district includes the river encampment, said the county had to right to recover the land.
"When it’s time, it’s time,” he said, defending the decision to dismantle the camp now rather than months ago when it was much smaller and less established. "We probably should’ve never let anyone camp down there…. Then we wouldn’t be dealing with this at all.”
Nelson said the county was working fast to open an additional homeless shelter within a few months.
"We are going to the greatest lengths we’ve ever gone to deal with homelessness,” he said.
Advocates say it's not enough. And they see the county's eviction of campers to make space for storing boulders and sand as a veiled effort to remove the homeless problem from public view.
“We would rather house jagged boulders than poor people,” homeless advocate John Harris said, observing the scene.
Orange County provides around 1,500 emergency shelter beds during the winter months. That doesn’t include shelters run by private organizations or cities.
Harris and other advocates say there aren’t nearly enough beds for the county’s nightly homeless population of 4,500 or more.
Plus, few shelters allow pets — many people living along the Santa Ana River, including Tammy Schuler, have dogs. And most shelters restrict personal possessions to a few bags.
“There’s only one answer to this situation, and that is affordable housing,” Harris said.
The county is offering to take people forced out of the river camp to shelters and store their belongings until they can pick them up. Schuler opted instead to move her things to the other side of the river, which is not slated to be cleared under the county's current project.
In all, more than 1,000 homeless people are estimated to live along the Santa Ana River.
By Wednesday afternoon, Schuler’s camp was gone, and an earthmover had nudged boulders in place to cover the area. County spokeswoman Braun said three or four camps had been removed and that the county would continue removing more throughout the week.