Officials ramping up efforts to take back Santa Ana River Trail – Orange County Register

After years of helping homeless over residents and recreationalists, elected officials this week finally mustered the courage to take back the Santa Ana River Trail.

Sure, the catalyst apparently was a series of columns that sparked more than 13,500 petition signatures. One person behind the scenes said, “It changed the conversation.”

But the point is that officials do listen — and do act.

In a critical show of unity, every Anaheim city council member early Wednesday morning, Sept. 13, bravely voted to declare a state of emergency that will offer homeless people alternative housing with a 60-day deadline.

Let’s agree that a city that may become a national lightning rod for announcing a state of emergency over homelessness isn’t in the pocket of “the happiest place on Earth.”

The three-pronged mission: Restore the designated National Recreation Trail to its intended purpose; return normalcy to neighborhoods near the river; eliminate — with compassion — extraordinarily unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Similarly, the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to have Orange County Sheriff’s deputies patrol the river trail. Undersheriff Don Barnes said Wednesday that two deputies and a sergeant will start the riverbed patrols as soon as this Friday, with 12-hour daily shifts.

Barnes added additional resources will be brought in if necessary. “We’ll focus on areas,” Barnes said, “where encampments exist.”

The undersheriff, however, was careful to note that the entire river trail will constantly be reviewed. “We don’t want a squeeze the balloon mentality,” he explained, “where the population just goes from one location to another location.”

Stressing that the effort needs to be holistic, Barnes added the department will contact a host of municipal agencies about augmenting deputy patrols. At least one city — Orange — already appears good to go. More on that in a moment.

“We have two interests,” Barnes said. “One is to help provide services to those who want to get out of homelessness. The second direction is to deal with the crime problems that exist in commercial and residential areas next to the river bed.”

Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray sponsored the state of emergency proposal and the full council immediately authorized its city manager to produce a budget to resolve the multi-layered problem.

Murray stressed that state and federal resources also will be explored.

“We’re opening up resources at all levels,” Murray told me between meetings on Wednesday. “The program is designed to move quickly.”

Still, the councilwoman cautioned about unrealistic expectations for what’s called Operation Home Safe. “It’s too early to speculate on how quick” things will happen, she said. “These are stretch goals.”

Murray said she is working toward having a multijurisdictional meeting by the end of next week to begin ironing out details. “We will bring in all stakeholders.”

While it’s true that many hurdles remain — including legal, logistical and jurisdictional ones — the actions taken by county supervisors and Anaheim council are bold steps toward a sensible and balanced approach in resolving the mushrooming problem that pits homelessness against residents.

Close to an estimated 1,000 homeless people live on the 30-mile river trail, a 12-foot-wide asphalt ribbon from the mountains to the sea. Tents and tarps line a six-mile stretch that takes in the cities of Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Orange and Anaheim.

Cyclists, runners and equestrians have virtually given up using much of the trail, fearing someone will suddenly wander in their path, throw garbage, leave an abandoned bag. Some report being attacked.

Residents tell me they have had outdoor furniture and bicycles stolen. Others say they have seen people defecating, urinating, injecting heroin and having sex in the open.

After reading my column detailing the change in the landscape of what was once a pollution-free option to commute by bicycle, Anaheim resident Kevin George reports he was inspired to launch his Change.org petition, “No More Homeless Encampments: We Want Our Santa Ana River Trail and City Parks Back!”

Fresh from being named an Operation Home Safe liaison for Anaheim’s District 5, George on Wednesday said, “It’s clear that every resident wants this.”

I asked about the future. “The next thing we have to do is triage,” George said. He predicted, “Some folks will leave after active patrols start, but some will stay.

“We have to ramp up the outreach,” George continued. “If you’re looking for a hand up, then we help you out. But if you refuse help and want to stay, then eventually enforcement’s going to happen.”

During the sometimes raucous Anaheim council meeting that extended into the wee hours of Wednesday, dozens of speakers spoke with extreme passion.

One man compared Murray’s proposal to “Hitler’s concentration camps during World War II.” A woman predicted “brutality” by law enforcement if officers go into the river bed. Other speakers echoed one another by saying council members should be ashamed of themselves for not having done anything earlier.

County Supervisor Todd Spitzer took a different approach. Standing before council, he congratulated Anaheim for providing leadership to help the homeless as well as joining the county in helping solve the Santa Ana River Trail mess.

In a let’s-see-what-happens-next moment, Spitzer concluded, “The county has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on homeless and we haven’t spent it. That’s shameful.”

Cities, too, closely watched this week’s events. The City of Orange, for example, has borders that cross the Santa Ana River at the intersection of the 5, 57 and 22 freeways. Elsewhere, the channel marks its western border.

I talked to Orange Mayor Tita Smith for her take on a multijurisdictional task force. She pointed out her city has a long history of helping homeless people and promised, “Orange will give 100 percent full cooperation.”

Indicating Orange police might now coordinate with county deputies on the riverbed, Smith added, “I am very grateful that supervisors are dedicating law enforcement services.”

A licensed clinical social worker, Smith attributed part of the recent spike in homelessness along the Santa Ana River Trail to Prop. 47, the 2014 ballot initiative that reduced some non-violent felonies to misdemeanors and allowed scores of convicts early release.

“What’s different now,” Smith said, “is there’s another whole segment of people out there who don’t want to change their lifestyle.”

Time to roll up our sleeves.

Article Source

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *