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'It's been a night from hell': Homeless pushed out of Santa Ana River face uncertain futures

Lisa Weber pushed her red-rimmed glasses higher on the bridge of her nose Thursday morning as she pondered how best to move her belongings off the dirt trail she has called home for months.

Her blue eyes seemed to show a glimmer of hope in contrast with her doleful expression. A friend living in a tent farther down the trail passed by and waved.

A man readies his belongings and bags of cans at a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River trail in Fountain Valley.
A man readies his belongings and bags of cans at a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River trail in Fountain Valley. Don Leach / Staff Photographer

‘I’m not scared because I have a plan’

Back to sleeping in her Oldsmobile

Like other parts of California, Orange County has seen an uptick in its homeless population in recent years. Scores of homeless people who have set up camp in the past year along the quiet trail overlooking the Santa Ana River in Fountain Valley feel they’ve found safety and camaraderie there.

However, beginning Friday, Orange County sheriff’s deputies began evictions at the various homeless camps along the river as part of a crackdown sparked by complaints from nearby residents.

The situation underscores the tension created by the homeless surge in this suburban county, where officials removed bus benches near Disneyland after complaints from merchants and where a massive encampment in the Santa Ana Civic Center has sparked debate.

Many homeless people are now scrambling to figure out where to go next.

The county plans to permanently close the west side of the Santa Ana River flood-control channel between 17th Street in Santa Ana and Adams Avenue in Huntington Beach as it prepares to start maintenance of flood-control district property along the trail, officials have said. That area includes the Fountain Valley encampment.

“I’m on my way out the gate,” Weber said as she looked toward the fence at the entrance to the river trail on Edinger Avenue. “I’m not scared because I have a plan, but I know other people are worried about where to go.”

Weber said she likely will begin sleeping in her Oldsmobile, which she recently bought for $100. The car runs, she said, but not very well. She’s afraid it eventually will be impounded because of child support she owes from decades ago.

But right now, she figures it’s her best option.

Larry Ford, a homeless veteran, picks up his Army bike next to his shelter at a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River trail in Fountain Valley.
Larry Ford, a homeless veteran, picks up his Army bike next to his shelter at a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River trail in Fountain Valley. Don Leach / Staff Photographer

‘very diligent and reasonable’

Getting out before the crackdown begins

Some in the Fountain Valley encampment were packing up cars and hauling belongings off the trail in shopping carts Thursday. Others collected trash bags stuffed with cans and bottles to take to recycling centers, hoping to make a bit of cash before heading out.

The community of tents and makeshift shelters has thinned in the past week, its residents said, but some are waiting until the last possible minute to leave.

Orange County spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the county also will begin to more firmly enforce public access hours along the river trail. People in the area outside the posted hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. will be considered in violation of state trespassing laws and can be cited.

Officials were expected to begin that enforcement this week but have not been issuing citations. Instead, they’ve let people living along the trail know about the rules and have asked them to relocate, Braun said.

“The county is being very diligent and reasonable in how we’re approaching this process,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can to meet the needs of the people out there.”

Socks are hung to dry outside Lisa Weber's camp along the Santa Ana River.
Socks are hung to dry outside Lisa Weber's camp along the Santa Ana River. Don Leach / Staff Photographer

‘They’re not telling them where to go’

No easy options when the river closes

However, homeless people and their advocates say the county is simply pushing the homelessness issue down the road instead of solving the problem. More than 4,700 homeless people were identified during a point-in-time count in Orange County this year.

“They’re not telling them where to go, just that they can’t stay there,” said Mohammed Aly, a homeless advocate who has visited the homeless encampment in Fountain Valley.

Advocates contend that shelters in Santa Ana and Anaheim don’t have enough room to accommodate everyone who may be vacating the river trail. Armories, which typically are open through the winter, offer only a temporary solution.

Pamela Swartz, who lives in the New Chase condominiums next to the trail in Fountain Valley, said she and her neighbors are cautiously optimistic about the enforcement effort.

New Chase residents have complained to county officials for a year about the growing number of homeless people staying just feet from their front doors. Drug use, fighting and odors emanating from the encampment have become a nuisance, condominium residents say.

“It’s not going to be easy. I think there may be some issues getting people to leave,” Swartz said. “Time will tell.”

County officials said they also don’t expect that everyone living on the river trail will leave voluntarily by Friday.

“There’s an understanding that it’s not going to happen in one day,” Braun said.

A woman walks past the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Fountain Valley on Thursday.
A woman walks past the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Fountain Valley on Thursday. Don Leach / Staff Photographer

THE EVICTIONS BEGIN

‘It’s been a night from hell’

By 6 a.m. Friday, the encampment along the riverbed was in a flurry, as people scrambled to load U-Haul trucks, cars, trailers and bicycle baskets with their belongings.

Some had been packing and moving items all night.

“It’s been a night from hell,” Kristin Bennett, who has been homeless for two years, said as she surveyed her surroundings early Friday. “But I think I’ll be all right. I’ve done this so many times. All of this is just stuff.”

Orange County sheriff’s deputies and county officials arrived at the riverbed about 9 a.m. and began telling people it was time to leave.

Deputies and county outreach workers visited each tent, lightly shaking the material and announcing their presence. Those who are being forced to leave the stretch of riverbed in Fountain Valley say they plan to move up the road to other encampments in Anaheim or out onto city streets.

County officials offered to store any belongings that people weren’t able to carry off the trail. Items can be stored for up to 90 days. Orange County Animal Care also has offered to board homeless pets at no charge if their owners want to stay at the armory in Santa Ana, which doesn’t permit animals.

Law enforcement said they don’t plan to forcibly remove anyone from the river trail Friday. Instead, people were provided more time to pack up their tents and move out. However, the directive that they are no longer welcome was clear.

Over the next several days, authorities will begin issuing citations for anyone still on the trail. Officials said they expect it’ll be about three days before everyone is gone.

“Just because it’s an ugly day doesn’t mean I have to be ugly,” said Morgan “Mermaid” Gallerito, who decided to wear a dress while being evicted from homeless encampment by O.C. Sheriff's and police officers along the west side of the Santa Ana River trail. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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