Can tall steel fencing prevent homeless encampments along flood control channels?
Homeowners and public officials are counting on secure fencing that the county is installing in 24 locations along flood control channels in Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Westminster to deter transients that they say break into homes and cars, start fires, and cause other havoc.
At a news conference Thursday, Aug. 30, held in the shade of the graceful trees that dot Jack Fisher Park in Santa Ana, First District Supervisor Andrew Do, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckus and elected officials from the three cities described the fencing project as an example of growing collaborative efforts to address homelessness as a regional issue.
“We will help the needy. We will help the homeless. But we will take back control of our community,” said county board Chairman Do, whose First District encompasses Garden Grove, Santa Ana and Westminster.
So far, the project has involved installing 3,658 linear feet of fencing.
Do had been approached by constituents and city officials to do something about problems in the areas targeted for more secure fencing, including a series of fires at Santiago Creek that led to a homeless man being charged in July with nine counts of arson and vandalism.
Residents of north Santa Ana expressed gratitude, even as they acknowledged the fencing won’t entirely prevent people from entering the brush in the creek bed that abuts their homes — a longtime nuisance that increased dramatically this year with closure of tent encampments at the Santa Ana River Trail and the Civic Center.
Tim Johnson, whose three children like to play in Jack Fisher Park, joined public officials in speaking at the news conference. He said he was “extremely happy” about the fencing and the cooperation involved.
“Without the neighborhood input, I don’t think that this project would be occurring.”
District Attorney Rackauckas said encampments like those sprouting in the flood control channels “foster all kinds of diseases, all sorts of odd behavior, as well as crimes.”
Rackauckas said his office is prosecuting a “substantial” number of homeless-related felonies but could not cite specific statistics.
He did add that in addition to residents, the victims are often other homeless people.
The high-grade black steel fencing, mostly 6- to 8-feet high but 10 feet in some places, is harder to cut through, get a foothold to climb, or attach a rope to rappel down.
In some locations it replaces shorter chain-link and wrought-iron fences that have been vandalized.
Residents also hike unauthorized footpaths, but the project was initiated at the request of homeowners and city officials.
In an example of the joint effort between county and city jurisdictions, Santa Ana will oversee the installation of fencing along the boundary of the triangular shaped Jack Fisher Park east of Flower Street while the county completes a section that runs westward from Flower to Bristol Street.
Estimated cost for the Santiago Creek fencing on the city side is $130,800, according to OC Public Works.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said the city has the support of neighborhood associations to install the fencing. He related how one couple had resorted to buying a high-pressure pump in order to draw water from their swimming pool to put out fires.
“It is just so dangerous,” Pulido said of the potential risk posed by illicit campfires.
That couple, Mark and Janelle McLoughlin, said 30 tents and makeshift shelters were recently removed from the brush near the Riverside Drive where they have lived 25 years.
One homeless person pulled away the ivy on their back wall to hide a mattress. Even with the response from law enforcement, other squatters continue to live nearby, they said.
“We can’t sleep at night because they’re screaming and yelling,” said Janelle McLoughlin, who praised Do for his response when they contacted his office about four months ago.
But moving homeless people from one unauthorized area just tends to result in them going to another — or returning at a later time.
An area along Santiago Creek beneath an Interstate 5 overpass cleared by Santa Ana police in May is being repopulated, residents said.
Johnson, the West Floral Park resident, has attended court sessions in the federal civil rights lawsuit over the clearing of the riverbed encampments.
He backs a regional effort to build more shelters and supportive housing as the best solution, recognizing that it does no good to shuffle homeless people from one place to another:
“I just hope our ‘Oh, good,’ doesn’t become somebody else’s ‘Oh, no.’”