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Orange County Continues Its Assault On Homeless Encampments In The Santa Ana Riverbed

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Part of an encampment along the Santa Ana Riverbed (Photo courtesy of Eve Garrow)
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The Santa Ana Riverbed in Orange County is home to over 1,000 homeless individuals. In an efforts to rid the area of the inhabitants, the Orange County Public Works is dumping boulders into the river and covering the riverbed's slopes in jagged concrete.

In addition, bulldozers have appeared exactly where the homeless encampments are located, Eve Garrow, policy analyst and advocate for the ACLU of Southern California's Dignity For All project, told LAist.

“It’s not a safe place,” Susan Price, the county's director of care coordination, contests, notes the Orange County Register. “It’s not a place meant for human habitation.”

According to the OC Weekly, the county public works put up notices along the riverbed that maintenance construction will be taking place February through June, and anyone who "willfully and maliciously obstructs" the efforts will be charged with a misdemeanor.

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Garrow states that these notices, along with the boulders and bulldozers, are part of a recurring pattern that county officials use to intimidate the homeless.

She adds that police and sheriff's deputies have verbally warned the inhabitants that they have until 6 a.m. on February 6 to move their belongings, or their belongings will be impounded. Furthermore, county workers have given the residents a list of programs and shelters for where to go, but they're mostly full already. "So, people generally disperse and then congregate at another place along the riverbed."

“Everybody’s gone except for me,” Keith Romero, 58, told the Register after the notices appeared. “I’ve been here 28 years and I don’t know where to go.”

"Some of the folks in the riverbed have housing vouchers but there isn't adequate housing," Marcus Benigno, director of communications and media and advocacy at the ACLU of Southern California, told LAist. "Others have severe disabilities and are not accommodated when notices like these appear; the timing of the notifications are inadequate; and ultimately, the reason why they end up in the riverbed speaks to the larger issue that 33 [of] 34 cities in Orange County criminalize homelessness."

"Orange County spends very little on affordable housing, meanwhile it's a very expensive county to live in," Garrow told LAist. She explained that while L.A. county has passed Measure HHH to spend $1.2 billion on homelessness reduction and prevention, Orange County has dedicated almost zero money for similar programs or affordable housing. "Last year, the county dedicated about $200,000 to permanent supportive housing out of a $3.2 billion general fund and a discretionary fund of about $700 million. ...It's a little ridiculous."

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The ACLU's position on the county's tactics is that it is unlawful to enforce the various laws and ordinances aimed at the homeless when there is no viable alternative to sleeping in public.

"The Department of Justice has stated that it is unlawful to criminalize homelessness when people literally have no other place to go," Garrow said. "It violates the Eighth Amendment."

The ACLU of Southern California is encouraging Orange County to take proactive steps (like L.A. county has) to actually end homelessness.

“We don’t need 2,200 shelter beds,” Price said. “What we need to do is focus on affordable housing.”

Meanwhile, Orange County's homeless population is seeing an all-time high in deaths.
In 2016, the OC Coroner's Office reported over 200 deaths among the county's homeless population. In comparison, 2015 saw only 46.

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But the causes of death, just like the roots of homelessness, are varied and complex.
“There’s 2,200 different stories of how people became homeless,” Price concluded. “And the causes of death are emblematic of that.”

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Photo courtesy of Eve Garrow

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Photo courtesy of Eve Garrow