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Orange County Board of Supervisors approves plan to aid homeless along Santa Ana River

A homeless encampment near the Santa Ana River, April 21, 2017. According to a January 2019 tally, 6,860 people sleep outside or in shelters in Orange County.
Jill Replogle/KPCC
A homeless encampment near the Santa Ana River, April 21, 2017. The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted June 6 to dedicate $750,000 toward a pilot project aimed at moving homeless people off the river and into permanent housing.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to adopt a pilot project aimed at getting homeless people off the Santa Ana River flood control channel and eventually into permanent housing.

The board voted 4-0 to dedicate $750,000 toward the effort, plus $5 million in state mental health funds that will go toward housing for homeless people with mental illnesses. 

"We cannot allow the riverbed to become Orange County’s skid row,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who proposed the plan along with Supervisor Andrew Do. 
The board directed county CEO Frank Kim to waive all normal bidding requirements and enter into a six-month contract with a homeless services provider to implement the project.

Supervisor Do said the first phase would consist of “triage operations, which include meeting basic bodily needs and emergency shelters.”

Advocates for the homeless have been pushing the county to allow portable bathrooms along the riverbed after county workers removed several donated port-a-potties, citing health and safety concerns. 

Subsequent stages of the pilot program would include providing intensive case management, workforce development and links to permanent housing for the estimated 500 people camped along the river.

Supervisors said the aim is to eventually clear homeless encampments from the area completely, although they said setting a deadline for doing so would be up to CEO Kim and the contracted service provider. 
“We’re going to close the riverbed,” Spitzer said. "I can’t say when, but we have to have a timeframe, Mr. Kim."

Homelessness in Orange County rose 7 percent in the last two years, according to the latest count. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people sleeping outside, not in shelters, rose more than 50 percent. 
Do said the risks of letting the riverside homeless encampments remain include potential river and ocean contamination from human waste that gets into the flood control channel. He also mentioned a recent fire from one encampment that engulfed a tree and could’ve led to private property damage.  He also cited the potential for crime given the lack of regular police or sheriff patrols in some hard-to-reach areas.
The new plan would include continuous law enforcement patrols along the riverbed. 
Supervisors also agreed to dedicate $5 million dollars in state grant funding for mental health specifically to housing homeless people with mental illnesses. 
Advocates for the homeless voiced support for the plan at the meeting.
“We can’t ignore the problem there anymore,” said Anaheim resident Jeanine Robbin. "They need to have access to restrooms; they need to have access to showers.” 
The Board of Supervisors also approved a settlement Tuesday with homeless advocates. It requires the county to continue picking up trash from the riverbed encampments and to store seized belongings. 

Brooke Weitzman, a lawyer for the homeless plaintiffs, said she was pleased with the settlement.