Orange County on Monday set Jan. 22 as the date it plans to begin clearing the Santa Ana riverbed of homeless encampments.
Starting that day, the county plans to close the Santa Ana River Trail between Memory Lane in the city of Orange and Ball Road in Anaheim. Officials posted notices Monday of the pending closure.
County officials said the move is necessary to remove debris, trash and human waste that has accumulated over the months that hundreds of people have been living along the trail. The trail will be closed for as many as three months while crews also perform a backlog of maintenance projects, officials said.
“Our concerns over the buildup of various types of debris and waste in the area have intensified, as has the need to inspect flood control facilities in the area and perform necessary maintenance and repairs,” said Khalid Bazmi, Chief Engineer of the Orange County Flood Control District, in a memorandum to the County of Orange Board of Supervisors.
The move is the latest effort by the County to get control over the growing homeless population in an area where camping is prohibited.
“It is not intended for human habitation,” OC Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said of the concrete-lined river, which serves as a flood control channel. “We have unequivocally said that we intend to return the flood control channel to its intended purpose.”
The county, which owns the flood control channel, has come under increasing pressure from OC homeowners and leaders of surrounding cities to remove the hundreds of tents that many see as a public health hazard, an eyesore and a source of crime.
Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless have repeatedly berated local leaders for failing to increase emergency shelter and housing options for people living along the river.
“The 1,000 or so people who are currently residing in the riverbed will spill into the neighboring residential neighborhoods where they’ll have no choice but to sleep on the sidewalks,” said Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center.
Weitzman and others successfully sued the county last year to halt an earlier effort to rid the flood control channel of homeless people. It’s unclear whether county officials will be allowed to go through with the evictions now.
In November, the county forced out around 100 people from an encampment along the river in Fountain Valley. It also increased law enforcement patrols in and around the homeless encampments, and enacted a curfew along the river.
In the coming months, the county plans to install lockable gates at access points to the bike trail that borders the river.
At the same time, officials have opened two year-round homeless shelters in the past two years. They have also ramped up outreach to people camped along the river in an effort to connect them with housing and social services.
Braun said 115 homeless people had been moved into housing between July and November through the county’s outreach efforts at the riverbed.
Still, critics say there’s a vast shortage of housing and emergency shelter space to meet the needs of the county’s estimated 4,800 homeless people. County data show that there are nearly twice as many homeless people as available beds in emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities.
Braun said the county will offer free storage and kenneling for pets when the evictions start, as well as shuttle rides to nearby homeless shelters. She also said the county would give campers a “reasonable” amount of time to relocate.
“We understand that these are people, some of whom have been encamped in that area for a long period of time,” she said.
Campers who refuse to leave when asked will be subject to citation for violating state trespassing laws, according to a statement from the county.
Weitzman said she hopes she and other advocates can persuade the county to reconsider its eviction plan.
This story was updated.