Orange County officials on Monday began efforts to dismantle the large homeless encampment that’s sprung up in recent years along the Santa Ana River bike trail. They said earlier this month that they plan to completely clear the trail of human habitation in the coming weeks — but there is no exact timeline.
"Our goal is to have a soft start," Undersheriff Don Barnes said. "Over time we’ll have to make the determination to just shut it down. And our hope is to do that without making any arrests."
Located along an approximately 2-mile stretch next to Angel Stadium, the Honda Center and several residential neighborhoods, the encampment has become a focal point in the debate over how to address homelessness in Orange County.
Advocates have urged the county not to force out homeless campers without a plan to house them. But local officials and some neighbors have complained that the encampment is a public health threat and a haven for criminals.
Sheriff’s deputies went tent to tent Monday informing people that they needed to start packing up.
"Anything you have that’s trash just go ahead and put that aside for us," Sgt. Shannon Parker told two men perched on bicycles on the trail. "Your regular property that you’re going to take with you, just start packing it up. Again, we’re going to give you time."
One of the men, 34-year-old Justin Golden of Anaheim, said he and others would find a new spot. "It’s just a cycle, really,” he said. "A lot of people just go from place to place until they tell us to go."
His companion, Ed Austin, 33, from Anaheim, said he didn’t know where he’d go next.
"I mean, I didn’t know I was going to end up here," Austin said, "didn’t want to, either."
Austin said he become homeless after a workplace injury made it impossible to continue his job as a machinist.
Asked if he’d consider going to a shelter, Austin said he preferred the freedom of his current spot. "It was better than most situations on the street," he said of camping by the river trail.
Nearby, Michelle Mora, 39, from Anaheim, was sweeping up trash around her fenced off lean-to. She said she left her job and apartment voluntarily and moved to the river a year ago to help homeless people. Mora said she planned to stay put, even if it meant going to jail.
"Someone’s going to have to stand up and fight for the rights of the people," she said. "Everyone deserves to sleep somewhere, right?"
She said authorities hadn’t given homeless people a viable alternative for shelter. County data shows there’s only about one shelter bed for every two homeless people in the county. But OC has made progress in recent years in narrowing the emergency housing deficit.
The county’s first year-round homeless shelter, with space for approximately 400 people, opened in downtown Santa Ana in 2015. The county opened a second, 100-bed shelter in Anaheim last year and plans to add another 100 beds to that shelter this year.
Further down the trail, Maria del Rosario, 41, said she moved to the river three months ago after she separated from her husband and found she couldn’t afford rent on her own with the money she earned as a temp worker.
"I was working night and day to try and pay $600 rent," she said in Spanish. "So I decided to come here."
She said she had recently made contact with a shelter and planned to move there in the afternoon. "This isn't the place for me," she said.
Some 4,800 people are homeless in Orange County, according to a 2016 count. More than half of them live on the streets.