The herculean task of clearing of the sprawling homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River Trail is expected to be by this evening.
A multi-jurisdictional effort led by the County of Orange began clearing the encampment on Tuesday, February 20 – beginning at Ball Road/Taft Avenue and moving south. By Friday evening, the encampments running along the west bank of the Santa Ana River, and the flagship encampment next to the Big A had been scraped. The “Rampart” section of the encampment between Orangewood and Chapman was expected to be cleared today. Even yesterday, it was a largely depopulated collection of empty tents and strewn with debris drifts.
Since the County began the initial soft-clearing on in late January, 628 individuals have been connected to motel housing by the county Health Care Agency and county contractor City Net. On Friday, 84 homeless were connected to 60 rooms.
32 homeless people have been connected to shelter in the existing system of care, such as the Bridges at Kraemer and Courtyard homeless shelters – bringing the total number motel-housed or sheltered to 660.
A month ago, the County estimates there were about 500 tents in SART homeless encampment, but as of February 22, only 154 tents remained – a number that excludes those marked by the County as abandoned.
People Respond To Incentives
A key element of the February 14 agreement hammered out by federal Judge David O. Carter between the County and homeless advocate lawyers was furnishing 30-day motel vouchers for the homeless living in the massive squatters camp when the clearing commenced on February 20.
When the agreement was announced, the OC Sheriff’s Department estimates there were between 120 and possibly 200 homeless people left in the encampment. News of the 30-day hotel vouchers spread rapidly, and by the time the evictions began on February 20, the encampment population had doubled as homeless people who had left returned to claim vouchers. They were joined by new arrivals, encouraged by homeless advocates to take up residence in order to claim motel vouchers.
The new arrivals engendered considerable resentment among the long-time residents of the encampment. One man told complained to this writer on Wednesday that he had come across at least two dozen people he had never seen in the encampment.
The County responded as best it could, using lists of existing encampment residents it had compiled, along with interrogation techniques to identify new arrivals. For example, a suspected new arrival would be asked: “Where is Mary’s Kitchen?” – the nearby non-profit that feeds the homeless and which many encampment residents used as a mailing address. If they didn’t know, it was a good bet they had just shown up in order to claim a 30-day motel voucher.
According to OC Sheriff’s Department personnel, there was considerable intra-camp migration during the week-long clearing. Many if not most of the homeless living in the southernmost section of the camp migrated upriver to claim vouchers, store their stuff and obtain transportation to their respective motels. The “service resistant” – the portion of the SART encampment who steadfastly refuse offers of assistance and services – migrated southward ahead of the advancing County task force, taking up residence in-now abandoned tents. The net effect is the final portion of the encampment population to be removed will be the most service-resistant.
As the statistics released by the County bear out, the homeless who have been living in the encampment hands-down prefer living in a motel for 30 days to going to a shelter where they’d have shelter, a bed and services for several months. One senior county staffer told this writer earlier in the week that they County had 232 recuperative beds available – and not a single taker from among the hundreds facing impending eviction from the SART homeless camp. The operator of a local Anaheim non-profit in-patient drug rehab facility was able to convince only single SART resident to enter treatment at the facility.
As he piled his stuff into a bicycle trailer, one homeless man complained to this writer that the motel vouchers were only for 30 days. “What do they expect us to do after that,” he groused. “They don’t give a rat’s ass about us.” Displayed in the see-thru plastic cover of his bicycle pouch was a card from Green on Green Delivery, a nearby cannabis dispensary.
Repairing the Santa Ana River Trail Will Take Months
The SART is a recreational amenity never intended for human habitation. After being the site of a giant transient camp for more than a year, this section of the SART is completely thrashed. The grassy knolls on the section between Katella and Ball are dead and brown. An astonishing variety of trash and debris and leftover stuff are strewn everywhere. Used hypodermic needles could be seen on the ground where the encampments stood a few days ago.
Remediation of the 2-mile stretch of the SART will take several months. The County plans to remove at least the top 12 inches of soil, and possibly deeper. Consider that more than 4,000 needles were collected from the SART encampment during the last week of Janaury and the first week of February alone. If anyone is unlucky enough to step on a needle after the SART re-opens, County taxpayers will be on the hook for any litigation. Therefore the County will haveto be exceedily thorough in its remediation efforts.