Dozens of the 4,452 homeless people in Orange County are living in tents strung along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim and Orange.
The homeless face numerous challenges, as do the public officials handling maintenance and enforcement of the public areas they call home.
“It sucks out here, but something about it makes you stay. For some people, it is the drugs. For some people, it is the lifestyle. Some people, they feel free, and some people are just stuck,” said Casper, a 22-year-old homeless man who, in February, had been living along the river for four months.
Everyone living along the river has to deal with the weather.
Anaheim had multiple months in 2016 that saw cold nights and rainy mornings; sometimes temperatures dropped to the 30s.
“It was horrible. It was really hard to have shelter that would last without the wind blowing it away or your campsite flooding or just everything falling down and crashing on you and you are just sleeping in wet blankets,” said Stephen Wilds, a former member of the 18th Street gang.
In February, Wilds, 25, had been living on the river for more than six months after his father kicked him out of his home in Norwalk. He came to Anaheim to find his mother, who was also homeless and living along the river.
Wilds does not have a tent and sleeps wherever he can, but he’s ready for a change.
“I met up with my mom out here and I wanted to live her lifestyle, but I don’t want to live this lifestyle anymore. I’m ready to cry and have a nervous breakdown because I don’t know what to do anymore. I really want to go indoors and sleep indoors every night,” Wilds said.
The Santa Ana Bike Trail runs right through the homeless encampment, creating problems for the homeless and for people using the trail, according to the homeless individuals and the 2016 Orange County Executive Office Assessment of Homeless Services in Orange County.
The tents and makeshift homes sit along the outskirts of the Angel Stadium parking lot.
People driving by and parking at the stadium sometimes shout slurs at the homeless, Casper said.
“‘The Riverbed People.’ That is what we get called,” he said.
Angel Stadium officials would not comment on the presence of the homeless.
People on bicycles speed down the trail and even swerve at them, said some of the homeless who live on the river.
The county assessment, however, found that having the homeless there discourages people from using the trail because they don’t feel safe.
Wilds and Casper said they are often misjudged by visitors using the trail because they are both covered in tattoos.
Wilds has devil horns tattooed on his head. Teardrops and a “5150” tattoo mark Casper’s face.
“You can’t judge a book by its cover out here. Somebody may look like a bad person, but they are probably the nicest guy you’ll meet,” Wilds said. “I may have devil horns, but we are nice people.”
The homeless along the river clashed with public officials in February when the
Orange County Public Works tried to evict them from the banks of the river so the county could store rocks and sand there.
OCPW handles maintenance of the area for the county and works with law enforcement to lessen the impact the encampments have on public spaces.
The wooden posts and eviction signs came in handy as building materials to stabilize tents and makeshift dwellings, Casper said. Those evicted simply moved to the other side of the river.
So far, the county hasn’t intervened again.
“There are no immediate plans to take any action at this time. Discussions will take place between the agencies involved to find a solution,” said Lt. Lane Lagaret of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in an email.
“This place pulls you in,” Casper said. “It’s different. It is like a whole other society.”
The encampments are divided into neighborhood-like sections, Casper said.
“Suburbia” is considered the “rich” area. People in this section have known each other for multiple years and keep themselves and their area cleaner. The tents are tucked under the top of a bridge where the cement slopes up. Makeshift ladders allow individuals to climb up into the tents.
Families and older people live in what Casper calls the “country” section. A young girl was playing on a tire swing under a tarp there in February. Puppies were wrestling in a fenced in area.
Another section is known as “ghetto suburbia.” Casper and Wilds both stay in this section which contains a harder crowd of former gang members and people with addictions. The section has the most trash strung about.
“There is a lot of people that ain’t decent at all, and everybody steals around here. We have a lot of problems with that,” Wilds said.
The “untouchables,” who are known for violence and theft, stay under the Orangewood Avenue bridge, shrouded by dark tents and tarps, Casper said.
People mostly stay in their own sections.
“Most of these people aren’t welcome in other areas,” Casper said. “If they were to approach with respect and dignity, they might have a chance. (You can’t) let your area be a pigsty. The biggest thing is cleanliness. You can’t let your area look trashed.”
Life along the river always comes back to the basics: food, water, shelter and a place to go to the bathroom.
“Everything would be perfect if we had a few outhouses and a trash pickup twice a week,” said Mike, a homeless man living in the “ghetto suburbia” section of the encampment. “If everyone acted accordingly, we would have this place looking like a park the whole time.”
People with bicycles can leave the encampment during the day.
Some people will go to local fast food restaurants and purchase something off the dollar menu to use the restroom, but others will resort to just using the open area near the river, Casper said.
Most people living in the community use bicycles as their main form of transportation. Old and rusted handle bars, wheels and frames are frequently strung along the pathway in all sections of the encampment.
Before being incarcerated for eight years in Missouri at the age of 14 for an armed robbery and hitting an officer, Casper said he was involved with BMX. He used his childhood experience and understanding of bicycle parts to help others fix and find the best parts.
Many living in the encampment ride along the trail playing music through portable speakers hooked up to their iPods.
For people who are not homeless, cellphones are a status symbol, Casper said.
“Out there it is like, ‘Who has the best phone?’ Down here it is like, ‘Who has the best speaker?’ he said.
People living in the community often have to make do with the resources they find.
Casper pointed to a man sifting through old bicycle parts, scraps of wood, old tentpoles and trash at the bottom of the riverbed. “We call that noodle grooving.”
“Sad to say, I’m about to go down there and use it because I need tent poles. I have a tent over here and I don’t have the poles to hold the roof up. People use trees and stuff, but I’m not going to put trees in my house and get ants,” Casper said.
Some people visit the encampment to donate food, blankets, clothes, flashlights and other useful supplies.
One day in February, a group of volunteers handed out pieces of cake on one of their member’s birthday.
“I figured for my birthday I just wanted to come by,” the volunteer said. “I figure I can’t be there for people’s birthdays, so why not make it about everyone’s birthdays.”
Wilds said he struggles with drug addiction and mental health problems.
“Everybody that does drugs out here, it’s a mental disorder. It’s like a disease kind of. You’ve got mental problems from it because you’ve been doing it so long. You develop schizophrenia from it,” he said.
Thirteen percent of homeless adults have a serious mental illness and nearly two-thirds of them are unsheltered, according to the 2015 biennial Unsheltered Point in Time Count report.
Wilds struggles with thoughts of committing suicide. One thing that stops him is imagining his family crying if he did. His other reason is his religion.
“Jesus Christ wouldn’t like that. I don’t think he forgives people who commit suicide,” he said.
Orange County does not have enough services for mental health and substance abuse treatment. The resources it does have are part of a large complicated system that is difficult to understand and access without assistance, the County Executive Office assessment found.
Wilds wishes officials would come to the encampment and help people by setting them up with social workers and appointments for mental health housing options.
“That would also kind of help out everyone around here. Everybody individually needs to get a little plan going. They can’t do it all on their own,” Wilds said.
Ashlyn Ramirez, Kaleb Stewart and Paolena Comouche contributed to this report.