Lisa Weber pushed her red-rimmed glasses higher on the bridge of her nose Thursday morning as she pondered how best to move her personal belongings off the dirt trail she’s 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 further down the trail passed by and waved.
Roughly 150 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 morning, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department will begin telling them they have to leave.
The county plans to permanently close the west side of the 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 that she bought recently for $100. The car runs, she said, but not very well. She’s afraid it will eventually be impounded because of child support she owes from decades ago.
But right now she figures it’s the best option.
Some homeless people 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 further up the river trail into Anaheim or onto city streets.
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 on the trail 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 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.”
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 this year.
“They’re not telling them where to go, just that they can’t stay there,” said Mohammed Aly, 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 on 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 Friday.
“There’s an understanding that it’s not going to happen in one day,” Braun said.