Amid the winding trails of Talbert Regional Park lie homeless encampments buried deep in the vegetation.
Some settlements appear to be abandoned — an empty 40-ounce beer bottle here, a stray hairbrush there.
Near one site during a recent visit was an apparent weapon made of a sharpened fence post with a pipe for a handle.
Several camps, however, were clearly still in use, though vacated during the day as the people who were living there — however temporarily — headed out for food.
Some settlements demonstrate efforts to build a semblance of home — a chair cobbled together from broken surfboards, an aged rug covering the dirt ground, a large fire pit with a single rusted can at the bottom.
Bruce Stinson, a 10-year resident of the Newport Terrace community that borders the east side of the park, said the camp with the fire pit is abandoned but once was the site of a large blaze caused by a homeless bonfire gone awry. The blackened trees nearby bear the scars of the flames.
Neighbors complain of crime and intrusions
That incident and others more serious have created fear among many of the park’s neighbors.
“Violent crimes, property crimes, things that are threatening the safety of the community,” said Joelle Casteix, a 12-year resident of Newport Terrace, between Victoria and West 19th streets. “Within the past year or two, it has gotten out of control.”
Concealed by giant reeds and long stalks of pampas grass, most of the settlements are not visible from the trails, which makes some park users and neighbors nervous.
Casteix said a homeless man almost beat another homeless man to death June 7. A day later, she said, a homeless man holding a pipe was “beating on doors” in her neighborhood.
“I was at my house with my kids and I heard someone yelling,” said Yvonne Kahlen, a 20-year Newport Terrace resident. “So I went outside and the guy was banging on the front door of a house.”
When the man saw her, Kahlen said, he shouted, “She’s trying to kill me.”
Residents surmised the man had mental-health or drug-related issues.
According to Casteix, a homeless man attacked another homeless man with a hatchet June 12 near the Newport Terrace entrance sign.
Dede D’Alessandro, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, said the victim was “bloody and injured on the head and back.”
Casteix said she heard gunshots Sept. 29.
She said residents fear that one of them could become the victim of a violent crime.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Casteix said.
In addition to incidents of violence, residents said they have to put up with other offenses, including obscenity-laced screaming coming from the park at night, neighborhood lawns littered with drug paraphernalia including needles and crack pipes, and homeless people taking water from residents’ garden hoses.
“It’s really scary when someone is stealing water from your hose at 3 a.m.,” Casteix said.
Some residents have taken to locking up their hose spigots.
Neighborhood residents aren’t the only ones growing tired of such problems. Two homeless men who live in the park and didn’t want to be identified for fear of being discovered by authorities said they don’t appreciate the “drug addicts” who leave litter in the park.
“There’s a bad seed in every apple, but we can’t control that,” one said.
Who has jurisdiction?
Frustrated residents say they feel abandoned as incidents continue in and near the park.
But authorities face a tangle of complex jurisdictional issues when responding to calls for service in Newport Terrace.
The neighborhood is part of Newport Beach, surrounded by Costa Mesa. Talbert Regional Park is operated by Orange County.
“If we call Costa Mesa [police], they put us through to Newport Beach,” Casteix said. “If we call about some guy running around with a pipe who runs back into the preserve, the Newport Beach police won’t chase him.
“The cops do their best, but no one will go into the preserve because they are scared of jurisdictional issues.
“We are frustrated because no one’s listened to us. If this were happening in Balboa Island or Corona del Mar, you better believe there would be a blue-ribbon committee. We are just a working-class neighborhood.”
According to Michelle Cook, communications director for Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel, the county Sheriff’s Department and Costa Mesa police have jurisdiction to enforce state and county laws in the park.
Park rangers cannot make arrests, so they have to call law enforcement about criminal violations, Cook said.
But Costa Mesa police Lt. Greg Scott said his department does not have jurisdiction over the park.
Scott said he expected the Sheriff’s Department would be in charge of the area because it is county property.
But according to the Sheriff’s Department’s chief information officer, Kirk Wilkerson, his agency also doesn’t have jurisdiction.
Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Stichter said the Sheriff’s Department will respond if park rangers ask for help.
Stichter said the neighborhoods surrounding the park are not on county property, so calls from residents there are directed to local police.
Newport Beach police also are not in charge of the park, department spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella said.
She said she was “shocked” that neither the Costa Mesa Police Department nor the Sheriff’s Department claimed jurisdiction over Talbert.
Similar jurisdictional issues at the park were cited in a Newport Beach police report from May 2000.
The report said police began to investigate the park after they received several complaints from Newport Terrace residents.
“It was not uncommon to receive complaints of armed robberies, violent rapes, felony assaults, drug trafficking, thefts and brush fires that had occurred in the park,” the report said.
During the investigation, police found 29 homeless settlements in the park and that a “significant number of felons had been identified as residents,” the report said.
The report showed frustration with jurisdictional complications faced by law enforcement.
“The emerging problem was a 97-acre park that was owned by the county, bordered by two cities, protected by federal and state agencies and no law enforcement entity willing to take responsibility for the crimes,” the report said.
Newport Beach and Costa Mesa police have worked with the Sheriff’s Department to evict homeless people from the park.
Orange County Parks staff served eviction notices Aug. 29 that required the recipients to vacate the park within 72 hours, parks spokeswoman Marisa O’Neil said.
Parks staff, the Sheriff’s Department and Costa Mesa police conducted a sweep of the park Sept. 1, resulting in multiple arrests on outstanding warrants, she said.
O’Neil said it was the only multi-agency sweep this year. But park staff conducts daily maintenance there, including serving 72-hour eviction notices about once a week.
The Newport Beach police report in 2000 said agencies had sought to resolve the jurisdictional issue but that each organization’s attorneys decided it was better to forgo a signed agreement.
Instead, they relied on a verbal commitment among the three agencies, the report said.
The agreement called for Costa Mesa and Newport Beach police to respond to crimes in the park and for the Sheriff’s Department to handle follow-up investigations, the report said.
Steel, who is vice chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors, said in a statement that she has been working to alleviate the issues at Talbert.
“I have been working closely with our sheriff, city leaders, county agencies, police and Orange County Fire Authority to improve the situation in Talbert Park,” said Steel, whose district includes Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
Cook said Steel met with representatives of several agencies, including Costa Mesa police, the Sheriff’s Department and OC Parks, on Aug. 30 to discuss the issue of law enforcement.
She also organized the Sept. 1 enforcement sweep at Talbert and sponsored a recent restoration and cleanup event, Cook said.
Cook said the sweep will be used as a model for similar efforts in the park.
Steel added in her statement that she and her colleagues are “pursuing practical solutions and outreach for the homeless in the region.”
Cook did not provide details about those efforts.