LEADERSHIP NEEDED ON RIVERBED HOMELESS
The explosion of homelessness on the Santa Ana River Trail — a responsibility of the County of Orange by agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers — is a disgrace, and nothing short of a complete failure of leadership by the sheriff and whoever is running day-to-day operations.
A responsible leader would simply say, “The Santa Ana River Trail is the responsibility of the county. As the primary law enforcement agency responsible for the county, from this day forward, we will be taking responsibility for this asset from fence line to fence line.”
A reporting area would then be created for tracking purposes, all calls would be handled by a deputy, and action could then be taken to mitigate what has become a real problem. It’s called being proactive, and it is the missing link in the ongoing issue of homelessness. Law enforcement officers are the first point of contact for those enduring homelessness, either through choice or circumstance, and they must be prepared and supported to deal with this issue.
Law enforcement’s role in the homeless issue is difficult, at best, and always has been. One possible path is to compartmentalize the issue into three groups, making it easier for officers to address the homeless effectively.
The first group is the homeless in need of transitional housing. These individuals need to be directed to those services currently available to them, provided by taxpayers and intended to eventually move them to permanent housing. They cannot, and should not, be allowed to just buy a tent and live on the riverbed, especially if there are any children involved.
The next group is far more difficult to deal with. The individuals with mental health problems need to be given information and strongly encouraged to access those services. One way to encourage them is to educate them on the benefits of not being homeless, and perhaps on the illegality of camping where they are not allowed to camp.
The final group is the criminal element, those who are taking advantage of the lack of enforcement to continue to break the law, do drugs and basically not participate in society. Here the role of law enforcement is clear: Enforce the law vigorously, and do not allow criminals to occupy these encampments and victimize people via the anonymity provided by the encampments.
The concerns over homelessness center on two areas: cause and response. Why is there seemingly a sudden increase in the numbers of homeless, and what do we do about the problem? What can, and should, government do to address this issue and how much money needs to be expended? Is it solely a money issue?
There are several identifiable factors in the rise of homelessness in Orange County. One driver is the unregulated growth of sober living facilities and a tactic known as “curbing,” whereby patients, many of whom come from out of state, are kicked out of sober living homes without any support or follow-up treatment once their insurance coverage runs out. In addition, recent public safety initiatives like AB109 (prison realignment), Proposition 47 and Proposition 57 have caused the early release of criminals from prison without any support, led to fewer arrests, and all but eliminated the mandatory treatment programs in place prior to passage of these measures. Many of these individuals end up homeless, and many continue to commit crimes, hiding in the anonymity of homeless encampments.
Finally, state policies and regulations such as the California Environmental Quality Act have stifled the development of housing, leading to a lack of transitional housing and affordable housing.
In order to solve or at least mitigate the homelessness problem in our beautiful county, it’s going to take an all-of-the-above approach, from law enforcement to public-private partnerships to cooperation with the state to churches and everything in between. We need to be proactive at all times, acting with compassion when warranted, and with firm, but fair, enforcement when needed. It takes leadership at all levels and a willingness to do what is necessary.