Burgeoning homeless population is sour note in City of Orange

By Andie King

“This is not a town hall meeting,” Orange City Councilman Mike Alvarez explained, “this is a NextDoor  (a community sharing app) neighborhood meeting.” The courtesy meeting about homelessness in Orange was so well attended, the fire marshal shifted the crowd from the assigned room into the council chambers.

Alvarez had offered to hold a neighborhood workshop for North Orange residents to discuss the homeless situation, Aug. 3. Word spread quickly, and approximately 90 advocates, concerned residents and “move-them-out now” proponents showed up to voice their opinions. 

Alvarez, a cyclist, had biked on the Santa Ana River Trail for years, but the uptick in the homeless population, plus the city monies required to police it, motivated him to address the situation. 

A Memorandum of Understanding links Orange Police into patrolling the riverbed, though the area is officially under county jurisdiction. The latest city survey indicates 600 camps are staked there, housing people unable to find affordable rents, despite having full-time jobs. Other homeless suffer from mental health issues, alcohol and drug addiction. The riverbed is the major area of concern, but residents reported homeless in parks and neighborhoods. “I don’t feel safe,” one citizen claimed. 

A costly problem
In 2016, the city spent approximately $700,000 for costs related to the homeless. Calls to the police run six to 10 percent of the total volume received. In addition, the city allocated $70,000 for a private security firm to “police” Hart and El Camino Parks, removing people when the parks close at 9 p.m., until they reopen at 6 a.m. The contract with the private firm now includes Ambriz and Eisenhower Parks, plus the train depot park area.

Alvarez lauded Orange Police for being ahead of their time in forming HEART (Homeless, Engagement, Assistance & Resource Team) five years ago; the tea is now a daily presence at the homeless encampment.  But, he said, the city does not have the coffers to handle the homeless problem. The county, which has jurisdiction over the riverbed, reportedly does have deep pockets, per Alvarez, of up to $182 milliion. 

Citizens were vocal. They deplored the delayed response time to calls about the homeless, the “seedy” view, the panhandling, urinating on the lawn, and expressed concerns about safety at public parks. 

What does Alvarez suggest? Get involved, become politically active. Attend city council meetings, write letters (not emails) to city and county officials; demand the mayor hold a Town Hall Meeting; join neighborhood watch, UNO (United Neighborhoods of Orange), or form an organization and send a representative to every meeting.  If you see a tent, alert the police. Calls are recorded, and added to the data base. Let your city council, your county supervisors, know that you are concerned.

No where to go
The goal is not to shuffle the homeless, but to help solve the problem, perhaps by demanding developers include affordable housing options in their plans. “Orange,” he said, “needs to be a part of the plan.” In an email to County CEO Frank Kim, Alvarez suggested the outdated animal shelter be converted to a homeless facility. Orange resident Jeanine Robbins reminded the audience that it is legal for the homeless to be on sidewalks. She suggested Orange follow the lead of Anaheim, who instated the Anaheim Homeless Advisory Working Group, comprised of councilmembers, county, ACLU, and assembly representatives.

Nancy Collins, an Orange resident, encouraged the audience to be pro-active. It is good, she said, to follow national and state politics, but “local politics impact home values, life, how we live.”  

A number of residents subsequently attended the Orange City Council meeting, Aug. 8, to reiterate their concerns.  Local businesses report the impact, from “stealing the cash from the tip jar,” to intimidating customers and employees, said Rebecca Bates of Rekindle Caffe. 

Other businesses suffer with customers so intimidated by aggressive behavior that they are afraid to get out of their car.  They witness drug overdoses in doorways, and are barraged with requests for pocket change. Officers report daily arrests, and are “fenced out” of encampments that have become informal communities with named leaders and organization. 

The population is estimated at 1,000. And climbing. The financial burden to the city is also increasing. And while officers are diverted to provide services to that sector, many fear fire, police and EMT services may not be available to taxpaying residents when needed.

Sometimes help isn’t
Many, including Alvarez, believe that church and community groups that provide food and clothing are not helping the situation, but enabling the homeless, encouraging them to stay along public trails close to services, and not seek help. On the other hand, such designated providers as CityNet, Mary’s Kitchen and Orange’s HEART team are trained and equipped to assist them and provide services. 

Unfortunately, though, not all services are accepted.  When housing was found for a homeless mother and her young child, she preferred to give up her child, rather than live separately from her boyfriend, dog and, quite possibly, drugs. 

Alvarez, from a large family with six kids, has a business and a long history in Orange -- and a great deal of pride in his city. When he first became an Orange councilman, he vowed to do his best for his city. Now, with only a few years remaining before he is termed out, he wants to help Orange clean up this issue. 

The complex issue is not just a city issue or county issue, it involves numerous public entities, human suffering -- and has no easy answers.

An estimated 1,000 people live in encampments stretching four miles along the Santa Ana riverbed.

Photo by Diana Fascenelli