The Santa Ana River in Orange County, California doesn’t look like most people’s idea of a river. It looks more like the concrete spillways you see in movies shot in Los Angeles, at least most of the time. Along the Santa Ana River is a bike path that allows people to ride all the way from Prado Dam past Angels Stadium in Anaheim to the ocean. Next to that path is a dirt shoulder that has increasingly become home to hundreds of homeless people living in makeshift tents. Some OC residents are afraid to jog or ride the trail and are demanding authorities do something. From the OC Register:
Frustrated over miles of homeless encampments on the Santa Ana River Trail, more than 11,000 citizens have signed a petition demanding back their national recreation site, and officials are considering a state of emergency.
The emergency task force, Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray states, would become effective immediately after approval and stipulate a 30-day deadline to relocate the homeless…
Kevin George, an Anaheim resident who lives in a neighborhood impacted by the trail, says he launched the popular petition after reading a column I wrote in July. It reported that hundreds of walkers, runners, cyclists and equestrians have been forced to abandon the 30-mile ribbon of asphalt because they fear for their safety…
George says it is common to hear and see strangers walking or riding bikes and skateboards at 2 a.m., checking car doors to determine if they are unlocked.
The person who shot this ride-through video in March of this year says most of these areas were empty when he began riding the trail a year ago. This clip is 10 minutes long but you can skip through to get a sense of what we’re talking about:
All of this is illegal of course. There are signs posted along the route saying no camping is allowed in these areas. The tent city is also a source of problems for the city, for people who want to use the bike path, and for residents who own homes nearby. Many of the people living in these tents are addicts or alcoholics. Some have mental problems. There are no bathrooms along the trail so human feces accumulate.
As mentioned above, OC resident who use the trail for recreation have started to pull back, partly because they fear being attacked but often just because there are frequently people standing in the path as if the trail is their front yard. The trail has also become a lawless zone with police agencies fighting over who is responsible to patrol it. The OC Register reports that the city of Anaheim and the O.C. sheriff have no record of a crime report from the area for the past 5 1/2 years, despite the fact there are reports of frequent fights, drug use and even rape:
A man living in a green, two-person tent along the river, near the 57 underpass, said his girlfriend was raped about a month ago but didn’t file a police complaint, choosing instead to rely on what he described as “bad dudes” who would kill the perpetrator. Another woman happily recounted a story of an accused rapist being dragged into a nearby tunnel by a group of men, never to be heard from again. Police data – which officials admit is likely incomplete – did not support their claims.
By contrast, the city of Orange has reported 12 aggravated assaults and two rapes along the portion of the trail it patrols within the past 18 months. The Register adds that drug dealers have also moved in, threatening the homeless not to call the police:
“They’ll threaten people, saying, ‘If I see a cop around here, I’m not going to get you any more drugs’ or ‘I’ll beat you up,’” [Paul] Leon said. “And even if (a crime) gets reported, it’s hard because the people aren’t tethered; they don’t have a house with a number. So police have a hard time getting ahold of you and might be too busy to try.”
There are definitely people in these camps who need help, but that doesn’t mean other residents have to allow one of the county’s public recreation areas to be turned into a lawless zone. Here in Orange County, people seem to be sick of it and looking for a new approach.