Can a nonprofit substantially reduce the population at the Santa Ana River homeless camp?
Sept. 07--ANAHEIM -- It amounts to only a fraction of the more than 400 people living in tents and makeshift shelters along a stretch of the Santa Ana River bike trail from Chapman Avenue to Ball Road.
But two months into a pilot program, the nonprofit City Net says it has relocated 45 people from the encampments that are Orange County's most visible sign of a homelessness crisis.
City Net is operating under a $720,000 county contract that calls for 10 to 15 so-called "street exits" a month. It is the most ambitious official outreach attempted at the river bed since large numbers of homeless people began flocking there over the past three years.
The county's goal is to substantially reduce the population at the tent encampments and discourage new people from settling there.
As City Net's work continues, it should become more clear how much of a permanent impact the organization is having on reducing the overall size of the homeless population. The contract extends through December.
"The question and the challenge always will be what about new people coming in?" said Matt Bates, vice president of the Long Beach-based City Net.
Moving people into housing is only part of the work City Net is conducting, which includes engaging other agencies and social service programs to share their particular expertise, and overseeing provision of such amenities as water stations and showers to address basic health and safety needs.
Portable showers, in the past provided voluntarily once a week by a group called Showers of Blessings, will be available two extra days and at more than one location near the river trail under a subcontract that started this week. Showers of Blessings parked its mobile unit along Rampart Street south of Orangewood Avenue on Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Showers of Blessings had been visiting the river bed on Saturdays long before the county's latest initiative. Now, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, homeless people can also shower at the Rampart location and at a spot north of Katella Avenue.
In the past, outside of the weekly Showers of Blessings visit, people living in the homeless encampments relied on taking showers at Mary's Kitchen in Orange, pouring water from buckets and bottles over themselves, or washing up in such public places as restrooms in nearby fast-food restaurants, water fountains along the trail, and jerryrigged water outlets.
One such makeshift source of water came by tapping into a backflow unit near the Rampart Street encampments. Access was cut off in late July when an Orange County Parks crew installed a cage around it. The nearby water fountain was fixed and a hydration station added for filling water bottles and jugs.
But homeless people affixed a long rubber tube to the hydration station to wash themselves and their clothing there. The lack of proper drainage created a pool of murky water and stinking muck, sometimes topped with soapy suds. Homeless advocate Mohammed Aly said he complained about the situation weeks ago to the county Board of Supervisors because mosquitoes were breeding.
On Labor Day, Aly and two other activists, assisted by homeless residents of the tent camps, dug a gravel pit at the fountain to filter and drain the standing water -- without permission from the county.
"Activists practiced civil disobedience by building the drainage system," Aly said Tuesday.
The issue of portable toilets near the bike trail has been even more problematic, since it lacks approval from the county.
The City Net effort is proceeding against the backdrop of intensified debate over homeless encampments in an area intended for recreation, not habitation. The 30-mile-long Santa Ana River Trail parallels the dry-bed flood control channel from the Orange-Riverside county border to the ocean.
Cyclists, joggers and others say their enjoyment of the trail has been diminished by the presence of the homeless encampments, particularly near Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Many say they have stopped or limited their use of the trail out of concern over increasing drug use, crime, dumping of garbage and human waste, unchained dogs and the unpredictable behavior of people suffering from mental illness.
Businesses and residents nearby have voiced similar complaints.
Just last week, one Anaheim City Council member called for declaring a citywide state of emergency over escalating homelessness, fueled in part by a marathon of public comments over a proposal to provide portable toilets for use by the homeless population at the river bed.
Three portable toilets placed near the bike trail in May without permission by an advocacy group were removed. The Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition had the backing of Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno to return the toilets on a trial basis, but no vote took place at the Aug. 29 meeting.
A petition launched by an Anaheim homeowner last month has quickly gathered signatures from about 15,000 people who call for the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances to prevent homeless people from living along the river trail and in city parks.
City Net is charged with a daunting task: Help stabilize hundreds of precarious lives while at the same time encouraging and assisting them to find alternative places to live.
Bates said success lies in earning people's trust. Even as an increasing number of homeless people stop by to seek help, "We believe there is a much larger group that is just waiting and watching."
Some people are concerned about divulging personal information; others worry that they will be drug tested or harassed by police. When the Board of Supervisors approved the City Net contract in June, it also called for increased law enforcement at the homeless encampments by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, but no plan has been publicly outlined as yet.
Many residents and business owners argue that charity and amenities offered to homeless people living at the river bed enables them to stay there and serves as a magnet for others. The county has asked City Net to coordinate the efforts of the many volunteers who come to the area to hand out food and other provisions.
"City Net is working to ascertain what outreach groups are coming, what they are providing, and how to coordinate so that resources are evenly dispersed both throughout the area and throughout the week," said county public information officer Carrie Braun.
Trying to serve the homeless population under the requirements of the county contract while curtailing charitable activity that is well intentioned but not always productive -- such as clothing donations that end up discarded to rot in the sun -- is a tricky balance, Bates said.
"This is not a de-facto homeless shelter," he said of the river bed.
Yet, to many people, it is.
"They just show up because they've heard it's a place where you can live homeless," Bates said, relating how a 15-year-old boy arrived one hot afternoon carrying water bottles and a tent, ready to settle in.
It might surprise anti-camping proponents, but at least one homeless woman said Friday that declaring a state of emergency might not be a bad thing -- if it leads to housing.
"You know what? If that can get people into shelter, into housing, then it's not a problem," said Angel Mayfield, 57, as she headed back to her tent south of Orangewood Avenue after stopping by tables stocked by City Net with donations of water, snacks and boxes of tissue paper.
Mayfield works two part-time jobs but can't afford rent in Orange County. She slept in her car until moving into a tent at the river bed last Thanksgiving. She figures housing is the only reasonable response from local government to the homelessness crisis.
"What else can they do -- are they going to put everybody on the streets and have them at their businesses and residences even more?"
City Net's July census showed that nearly two-thirds of the individuals on the banks of the Santa Ana River were men; the majority of the population was white; and most were locals from Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, Garden Grove and Fullerton.
Of 320 who answered questions about addiction, nearly 62 percent self-reported no problem with alcohol or drugs. About 10 percent of 322 people queried said they were on probation or parole.
And of 303 people who were asked if they were interested in case management, 80 percent said yes.
The county is hoping City Net's engagement can serve as a bridge to moving homeless people away from the bike trail. The organization's street-level expertise has been employed by several local cities and at the county-operated Courtyard shelter in the Santa Ana Civic Center, another homelessness hot spot.
Bates said City Net is prioritizing people who have income and/or are already involved in the process of finding housing. Angela Peifer is one such example. City Net is encouraging her to increase her income; she works 16 hours a week providing in-home care. She's 32 and has lived at the river bed for two years now. With her boyfriend and two dogs, she shares an encampment across from where City Net sets up.
"Nobody's been down here to help in that kind of way," Peifer said of City Net's outreach. She figures perhaps only half of the homeless people at the river might accept help, but she is eager to leave and stay gone.
"I don't want to be here. When I leave here, I want it to be somewhere better. I don't want to come back here."
Newcomers and veteran river-bed dwellers alike are finding their way to the recreational vehicle that serves as City Net's annex on wheels, parked seven days a week on a public works access road just north of Orangewood Avenue in the shadow of Angel Stadium's Big A.
There, City Net staff members and volunteers coordinate efforts with county workers from the Health Care Agency and City Net subcontractors that include outreach specialists from Illumination Foundation, a Stanton-based nonprofit that focuses on housing homeless people and addressing health needs.
Serve The People is another medical group that has started providing services at the bike trail, an outgrowth of the relationship forged with City Net at The Courtyard. A community health center based in Santa Ana, Serve the People has begun parking its mobile unit beside the City Net RV for a few hours every Friday.
The unit is staffed by a doctor, nurse, medical assistant and an enrollment specialist to help with Medi-Cal applications. The group can do exams, draw blood, write prescriptions and make referrals.
Last week, Tabitha Sage, a homeless woman with a troublesome sore between two of her toes walked about a half mile over from the encampment she shares with her parents, brother, son and boyfriend to follow up on medical treatment provided earlier by Serve the People.
Sage, 51, has been at the river bed since March but had lived there previously for a six-month stretch more than two years ago. She said she lost her mobile home in Anaheim after being laid off in 2013 and has suffered a series of other setbacks.
A county mental health worker was already helping her apply for housing before City Net arrived, Sage said. She was glad for the additional services City Net is bringing.
"They're real good with counseling," she said. "If you need someone to talk to, they're there."
Inside the Serve The People bus, Sage climbed on an examination table so Dr. Mario Angulo, who founded the group, could take a close look at her left foot. The wound appeared to be healing, he said.
Sage, who was prescribed antibiotics after an earlier visit, said the sore wasn't hurting her now. But a few days ago, an ugly blister on the backside of one toe had popped.
"It was all oozing," she told Angulo.
He gave her some advice about the flimsy thongs she was wearing: "The best thing you can do right now is wear shoes."