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Rousted : ‘Club Homeless’ Evicted as Result of Crime Complaints

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For three years, home for Don Wilson and a dozen neighbors has been a thick tangle of oleander and acacia bushes in the shadow of the San Diego Freeway at Beach Boulevard.

The tightknit community, dubbed “Club Homeless” by its longtime inhabitants, is more neighborhood than homeless encampment. Wilson and his neighbors have honeycombed this patch of ground with a walled bathroom, wind chimes, closets, dressers, a couch, recliners, coffee tables, a covered storage shack, a vanity area complete with mirror and other amenities of home.

There are two dogs and a pet python named Suzy Q. A large American flag flies at the entrance.

But on Wednesday morning, the residents of the encampment--some of whom said they had lived there five years--were rousted by Caltrans workers and law enforcement officials who ordered them to leave.

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For Wilson, an unemployed plumber, this meant packing more belongings than he could possibly carry, including a makeshift kitchen, complete with propane-fueled stove and oven, dishes, pots and pans, a row of coffee mugs and a spice rack stocked with everything from rosemary to nutmeg.

“All they are doing is putting everybody on a Bataan death march,” Wilson said. “They are not solving a problem; they are compounding a problem. They are basically saying that they want us to walk the streets until we drop dead.

“I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m going to do,” he said.

Huntington Beach police said they asked Caltrans to clear the area after nearby business owners complained about car burglaries and shoplifting, crimes that authorities attributed to the homeless people near the freeway overpass at the border of Huntington Beach and Westminster.

“We are not against the homeless, but we are against anyone who commits or supports any kind of criminal activity,” Police Lt. Luis Ochoa said. “It’s been a nagging problem.

“We’ve had, over a period of time, a series of thefts from surrounding apartments and commercial buildings, and from vehicles, and we’ve identified that area as a source of these thefts,” Ochoa said.

Wilson and other longtime residents of the encampment complained that they are being punished for the actions of a few transients or runaways who have passed through the area.

Heather Hodges, who is five months pregnant, began living in the makeshift shelter with her boyfriend and their two dogs two months ago. The couple receives food stamps, but both are unemployed.

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“We don’t want to be here, but we have no choice,” said Hodges, 21. “It was comfortable and no one bothered us. It’s like one big family who can’t afford to have their own house.”

The homeless, who said they have worked hard to keep “bad apples” out of their encampment, note that beds in homeless shelters are in short supply; the county’s estimated homeless population is 12,000.

Representatives from the Mental Health Assn. of Orange County, a nonprofit agency, visited with the homeless Wednesday morning, providing them with information about shelters and other sources of assistance.

“We just want to let them know that there are some options that exist,” program coordinator Paul Wager said.

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But Wager admitted that the situation is grim.

“There’s less than one bed for every 10 homeless people in Orange County,” he said. “There are not the resources being allocated to deal with the problem adequately at this time. It’s a tough situation.”

Although the appearance of law enforcement officials Wednesday morning was a jarring sight for the group, it did not come as a surprise: An eviction notice had been posted earlier this week in accordance with Caltrans policy.

Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda said the agency tried to handle the eviction “in the most humane way possible.”

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“We wanted to give them an opportunity to pack up their belongings and their pets,” Miranda said. “It’s a sad situation; I wish we didn’t have to do it.”

In addition to the concern over crime, Miranda said, people living near a freeway pose other hazards.

“We have to remove them because of safety concerns for the motorists,” he said.

Miranda said crews will clear the area of the people’s belongings, which the agency will store free for 30 days, and will trim the thick bushes to make them less inviting to the homeless.

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Paul Gray, a Huntington Beach attorney, had unsuccessfully tried to intercede on behalf of the group by asking Caltrans to delay the eviction for a few more days.

“They had been there for several years, so to have them move out with just a couple of days notice is entirely inadequate,” Gray said. “It’s probably proper notification if they had just been trespassers, but they’ve been living there for such a long time. They basically had developed a de facto homeless shelter.”


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