Homeless along river trail in Fountain Valley are told it’s time to leave

Morgan Gallerito, who has spent months living along the dusty trail on the west side of the Santa Ana River, was determined to leave her homeless encampment in style Friday morning.

Despite a slight breeze and chill in the air, Gallerito bid her adieu in a rose-gold strapless cocktail dress with sparkles on the skirt.

The dress, seemingly more appropriate for a school dance or posh cocktail party than moving day, reflects what Gallerito called her eccentric personality.

More than 150 homeless people who have set up camp along the river trail in Fountain Valley were dreading Friday, knowing Orange County sheriff’s deputies and county officials would arrive to tell them to leave. Gallerito was determined to make the best of it.

“Just because it’s an ugly day doesn’t mean I have to be ugly,” she said.

More than a dozen county officials, sheriff’s deputies and police from Anaheim and Santa Ana arrived at the trail at about 9 a.m. to begin telling people to move out.

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.

The camp was in a flurry just as the sun began to peek over the horizon Friday. Homeless people who have been living for months in tents overlooking the concrete river basin scrambled to load trucks, cars and trailers with their belongings.

Trash, shoes, bicycle parts and a mishmash of forgotten items littered the trail.

Some people had been packing and moving belongings all night.

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

Police and county workers visited each tent, lightly shaking the material and announcing their presence.

Gallerito, known in the encampment as “Mermaid,” drew compliments from deputies for her look.

Many of the homeless residents said they plan to move up the road to other encampments in Anaheim or out onto city streets.

Law enforcement didn’t plan to forcibly remove anyone from the trail Friday. Instead, people were provided more time to pack their tents and move out, said Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Jaimee Blashaw.

Over the next several days, however, authorities will begin issuing citations for anyone still on the trail. Eventually, they may face arrest if they don’t comply. Officials said they expect it to take about three days for everyone to leave.

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

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.

“They all claim they want to end homelessness, but there doesn’t seem to be any political will to make it happen,” said Jeanine Robbins, a homeless advocate.

County officials say they are doing all they can to provide resources to those living along the river trail.

Officials offered to store for up to 90 days homeless people’s belongings that they weren’t able to carry. Orange County Animal Care has offered to board homeless people’s pets at no charge if their owners want to stay at the armory in Santa Ana, which doesn’t permit animals.

“The goal is not to push them out with no help,” Blashaw said.

But Ronald Jirschefske, who has spent the past three years living on the trail after being released from state prison, said it’s not easy to keep his head up with mounting uncertainty.

“I have anxiety pains because I don’t know what to do or where to go,” he said. “Trying to stay positive when people are totally against you is hard.”

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN