SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — The search party pulled out of a McDonald’s parking lot, a collection of homeless men and women and their advocates squeezed into VW station wagons and old SUVs. They sought a patch of land or a spare building, a place — any place — where dozens of people might live for a while.
The cars passed neighborhoods of two-story homes along a ridgeline with views of the Pacific Ocean surf and then wound through a business park. They stopped next to a field of knee-high grass that the guide warned was off-limits because of rattlesnakes.
No bus line runs here, and the nearest grocery is a hilly two-mile walk. The only real virtue of the one-acre lot was that, while people work in the neighboring tech warehouses, no one actually lives anywhere near here.
“We need our own area without a lot of people around,” Jennifer Juarez, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been homeless for years, said as she surveyed the field. “But this? I don’t know.”
That this remote lot is even a temporary housing option for some of Orange County’s 5,000 homeless people speaks to the growing compassion fatigue that California is confronting. Frustrated with the slow pace of politics and demanding immediate, street-level action, residents in the wealthiest counties along California’s coast have been agitating for a solution — which increasingly involves pushing homeless people out of sight.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) recently called it “the greatest moral and humanitarian crisis of our time.”
In recent weeks, local governments from the northern city of San Francisco to here in Orange County have cleared out homeless camps, some of them years old and long considered public safety and health concerns. The regions have little in common politically but share a characteristic: extraordinarily expensive housing, which in March reached record highs in Orange County.
In the centers of many cities, tent encampments have become their own neighborhoods, often within areas that have been remade with public money and private investment.
Many of the state’s cities are thriving. But the gentrification that is taking place along the coast has made it far more difficult for local governments to afford housing options for those without homes. Hundreds of homeless people, now marooned in wealthy urban neighborhoods, have tested the patience of new residents, who have spent small fortunes on the condos and townhouses in the city centers.
“People are tired of their politicians not wanting to step up to this problem,” said Dennis Ettlin, a retired economist, city planner and aerospace engineer who volunteers for the nonprofit group Interfaith Homeless Outreach Project for Empowerment. He is helping to scout sites for shelters in south Orange County, recommendations he will pass on to city officials.
“Everyone wants to feed the homeless,” he said. “But food is not the issue here. Housing is the issue.”
Nearly a quarter of the nation’s homeless population lives in California — about 134,000 people who often have carved out patches of curb, riverbed, public park or town square to live.
California has the highest percentage of homeless people living outside or in cars — advocates consider them the “unsheltered.” Eight in 10 homeless people here under the age of 21 live outdoors, nearly twice the rate in other states.
Though billions of dollars in public funds have been approved for homeless housing in recent years, the money has proved difficult to spend as quickly as needed. California’s auditor recommended in April that a single agency oversee the money and ideas to address the problem, which shifts daily across city limits and county lines.
“The growing resistance to the homeless is small but very loud,” said Tim Houchen, a formerly homeless man who now advocates on their behalf. “Their problem now is that there are many people who do not want any new homeless shelters, but they want the homeless to go somewhere else.”
The public fatigue, manifested in hearing rooms, on the streets and in new policies, has been showing across the state for months.
In January, the city of El Cajon in San Diego County, where the worst outbreak of hepatitis A in the nation’s history emerged from homeless encampments last year, arrested a dozen people accused of breaking a new city law that makes it a crime to feed the homeless. The ordinance was rescinded a month later amid public protest.
That same month, it was revealed that a San Diego city work crew had nearly killed a homeless person a few weeks earlier. In clearing a downtown encampment, workers picked up a tent without looking inside and heaved it into a trash truck. The homeless person scrambled out before being crushed.
In Malibu, a city west of Los Angeles that includes a neighborhood nicknamed “Billionaire’s Beach,” residents have urged a church to stop the weekly dinners it holds for the homeless. Residents argued that offering charity just attracts more homeless people. The same thing happened in the less luxe city of Riverside, to the east of Los Angeles.
The community concern has been borne out by some recent events.
A fire last fall that threatened the Getty Museum and Bel-Air started in a hillside homeless encampment, drawing calls from some of the richest Los Angeles neighborhoods for the government to do more to address the issue. Downtown businesses also burned as a result of cooking fires that got out of control in homeless enclaves.
A 51-year-old homeless man was arrested in April and charged with trespassing after breaking into the governor’s mansion in Sacramento through a side window. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) was not at home, but his wife, Anne Gust Brown, was.
Days later, a homeless man walked into a steakhouse in Ventura, north of Los Angeles, and fatally stabbed a 35-year-old man as he ate dinner, his 5-year-old daughter sitting on his lap.
“Enough is enough. We are taking back our streets,” read a sign carried by one of dozens of marchers who made their way to Ventura City Hall a few days later.
San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell (D) began doing that during the last week in April. He ordered tents in the Mission District — ground zero for the city’s tech-money-driven gentrification, cleared of scores of homeless people. The city also has doubled the size of a cleanup crew dedicated to disposing of hypodermic needles discarded on the streets.
An Orange County split
In Orange County, the process has turned particularly bitter and has ended up in court. It has split the county’s crowded urban north, where the homeless population has been concentrated for years, and the richer suburban south, which has been ordered to bear more of the burden.
For a decade, as many as 1,400 people lived in tents along a mile-and-a-half stretch of the Santa Ana River, mostly a dry cement-lined channel running between highways within sight of Angel Stadium of Anaheim.
The camp scared off joggers, walkers and bikers, many of whom resented that a slice of sprawl set aside for them had been grabbed by others. More than 11,000 people signed a petition this year urging officials to clear it.
In January, local officials began accelerating plans to clear the camp. But a homeless advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit against Orange County and several cities to block the move, which officials defended by citing anti-camping laws that they said prohibited the tent cities.
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, said he understood the public safety risk the camp posed. But he took the unusual step of visiting the riverbed, seeing for himself the squalor and challenge. He declared that any eviction would have to be done “humanely and with dignity.”
The county agreed to pay for extra beds in several shelters and to fund 30-day motel vouchers for hundreds of homeless people. The Board of Supervisors plans to spend nearly $100 million to accommodate and treat those displaced by the clearing along the riverbed and at the Plaza of the Flags, a camp in the heart of the county seat.
“The system here just didn’t have the capacity,” said Supervisor Andrew Do, who is the board chairman and worked in the 1980s as a homeless advocate while he attended law school in San Francisco. “The truth is, the capacity was reached even before we began.”
The clearing process started in February with little resistance on the ground. But police did find hundreds of stolen bicycles, ammunition and other evidence of what Do called “a criminal element.”
As part of the lawsuit, local officials were ordered to find new locations for the homeless people once the camps were cleared. The most logical places were in the less-crowded south of the county, but the resistance was swift and strong from communities there.
After supervisors approved a plan to set up temporary housing — either in city-funded tents or hard-plastic Tuff Sheds — elected officials in several cities responded with legal threats to block the move.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has referred to the homeless as “sex offenders and drug addicts,” strayed outside his district to fan the resistance.
The homeless, he told a local radio station, should not be located “where good, hard-working citizens of California are trying to raise their families and pay their taxes and just enjoy a quality of life.” He said his county’s homeless population should be sent to the San Bernardino County desert “and provided services.”
“We’re stuck again with this situation where just two of our cities take on the bulk of the problem,” said Do, whose office overlooks a bus station that has been turned into a shelter for hundreds of homeless people. “The rhetoric and the image that has been created intentionally has caused the communities to react the way they have.”
Juarez, who volunteered for the site-location tour, lived along the Santa Ana River for years. Since it was cleared, she has spent nights in an extended-stay motel with help from a county voucher that has now expired.
Now 51, Juarez is an Orange County native and characterizes the current resistance to hosting the homeless as “the same people who have always been against us and are still against us.” She also said she understands some of their concerns, saying that “the homeless do bring drugs and crime. I do get that.”
A self-described “clean freak,” Juarez would not get a dog while she lived along the river for fear it would get too dirty. (Now she has Joe, a mixed-breed rescue.) She lived in her own tent, and as she put it, “breathed my own air.” She wants to find something similar, a place to live outside on her own terms.
“But this is such as small piece of land, and by the time they set aside a place for all the dogs, it won’t be much at all,” Juarez said, looking over the high grass of the San Clemente lot. “It just seems so desolate.”