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Orange County to enforce curfew aimed at homeless along Santa Ana River trail

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. Orange County announced plans to start enforcing a curfew along the river trail as part of a plan to move homeless people out of the area an increase security for trail users.

Orange County announced Monday that it plans to start enforcing trespassing laws along a 10-mile stretch of the Santa Ana River trail where homeless people live. It’s the county’s most aggressive move yet to clear out the hundreds of homeless people who have set up encampments along the river in recent years. 

Still, a legal settlement involving homeless people living in the vicinity of Angel Stadium precludes the county from enforcing the curfew in that area, which is one of the most densely populated.

The county and cities that border the Santa Ana River flood control channel, including Anaheim, Orange and Fountain Valley, have fielded increasing complaints from residents about the growing riverbed encampments. At the same time, advocates for the homeless have fought the county’s attempts to remove homeless people from the area, arguing that many have nowhere else to go. 

Starting Friday, the county will only allow public access to the river trail between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. (hours are extended to 9 p.m. in the summer). These hours are already posted but have not generally been enforced.  

Violating the hours could result in a citation and, for repeat offenders, possible jail time, said Lt. Jeff Puckett, who heads the OC Sheriff's Department’s homeless outreach team. 

County spokeswoman Carrie Braun said the move is intended primarily to insure the safety of bikers and pedestrians who use the trail for recreation. 

“This is not an attempt to eradicate the encampments along the flood control channel, although the county has said and will continue to say that a flood control channel is not intended or designed for human inhabitation and it's not a safe place to live,” Braun said. 

Still, the county does plan to permanently close off a 6-mile stretch of flood control land along the river in Fountain Valley. Braun said an estimated 80 to 100 homeless people currently live in that area. They’ll be asked to relocate before Nov. 10. 

The new enforcement plan follows the start last month of round-the-clock sheriff and police patrols along the river. 

Last week, the OC Sheriff’s Department reported that deputies had made 180 arrests in the homeless encampments for crimes including robbery, domestic violence and violation of parole. 

Eve Garrow, a homelessness policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the county’s new plan was a repeat of past policies that have done little more than shift homelessness to another area. She said many of the individuals living along the Santa Ana River are there because they’ve been pushed out of surrounding cities. 

“The county allows encampments to become large and visible and then, instead of meeting the needs of our most disadvantaged residents, comes in and just displaces them,” she said. 

About 4,800 people are homeless on any given night in Orange County, according to the 2017 Point-in-Time count. According to county data, there’s only about one emergency shelter bed for every two homeless people.

The county is more than halfway through a six-month pilot project designed to move homeless people living along the river into shelters and permanent housing, or to reunite them with family members. County spokeswoman Braun said 101 people had been moved from the river since June, with eight of them returning.  

OC is opening its winter homeless shelters early this year. The Santa Ana armory shelter, which has 200 beds, opened Monday, while the Fullerton shelter will open Nov. 16 with an additional 200 beds.