Mohammed Aly does not see any reason why he shouldn’t try to ease the lives of Orange County’s homeless. But the authorities — and many of his neighbours — disagree.
Aly, a 28-year-old lawyer and activist, has been arrested three times as he campaigned on behalf of street people. Recently, he was denied permission to install portable toilets on a dried-up riverbed, site of an encampment of roughly 400 homeless.
“Put yourself in their position: Would you want a toilet, or would you not want a toilet?” he asked. “It is a question of basic empathy.”
But his detractors — engaged in a dispute that rages up and down America’s West Coast, as the region struggles to cope with a rising tide of homelessness — say Aly and other do-gooders are doing more harm than good. However well-meaning, critics say, those who provide the homeless with tents and tarps, showers and toilets, hot meals and pet food, are enabling them to remain unsheltered.
And not coincidentally, they note, nuisances of homelessness like trash and unsanitary conditions fester and aberrant behaviour continues.
In California, the San Diego County community of El Cajon passed a measure that curtails feeding the homeless, citing health concerns. In Los Angeles, city officials have closed and re-opened restrooms for those on Skid Row amid similar controversies.
The issue is hotly debated across Orange County, a cluster of suburbs and small cities known more for surf culture and Disneyland than its legions of poor.
In the tony seaside enclave of Dana Point, neighbours fear a nightly meal is drawing homeless to a popular state beach where teens play beach volleyball and families picnic and surf.
On the dusty riverbed 30 miles (48 kilometres) north, a van furnished with shower stalls parks alongside the homeless encampment; those living in the string of tattered tents add their names to a list of dozens waiting to bathe. While the mobile unit aims to help those living on the trash-strewn strip, neighbours worry the 2-mile-long (3-kilometre-long) encampment is becoming more entrenched in an area where they once jogged and biked.
“If the ultimate goal is to get them under a roof, why on Earth are you giving all the advantages you would have under a roof on the riverbed?” asked Shaun Dove, a 46-year-old soon-to-be retired policeman from Anaheim, who lives less than a mile from the riverbed in a palm-tree lined neighbourhood of three-bedroom homes.
“There’s no doubt that giving them stuff there prevents them from a desire to move.”
The number of homeless living in Orange County has climbed 8 per cent over the last two years. In the United States, homelessness rose slightly in the last year to nearly 554,000, pushed up largely by increases on the West Coast, federal data shows. The increase is driven by soaring housing costs, though a drug addiction crisis and need for mental health services are also factors.
Advocates say the homeless population has become more visible as police have cracked down on rules barring camping, driving people from parks and bus benches to a few centralized locations, such as the flood control channel along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim.
Everybody knows that the only solution is more housing; there aren’t enough beds available in a county where the median home price hovers near $700,000. Until there are, many well-meaning residents want to try to alleviate what they feel is a humanitarian crisis by bringing food and other assistance to the homeless.
In a small community like Dana Point, there is no shelter. The nightly meals began more than two decades ago at local churches but were moved to Doheny State Beach after a late night stabbing between two homeless residents.
The picturesque city on bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean is known for its million dollar homes and scenic harbour. But homeless have long been drawn to Dana Point and other beach communities which offer public access and wide open spaces — and the beauty and sunshine that lure so many people to California’s shores.
In the late afternoon, volunteers arrive at the beach parking lot with folding tables and trays of chicken or beef or fish and fruit. They often also hand out a sack lunch for the next day to several dozen homeless, day labourers and poor who line up to eat after bowing their heads in a brief prayer.
The homeless say as much as they appreciate it, the food isn’t keeping them on the streets.
Gholamreza Haghighi, 59, said he has been sleeping in the nearby brush for more than two decades — well before meals were served there — and has nowhere else to go. Jose Luis Gonzalez, 60, said he has been living in his motor home since splitting with his wife and sometimes stops by the suppers to see friends and have a meal. Another homeless man who refused to give his name said he heads there simply to eat.
“I come here because it’s a Band-Aid,” the 55-year-old said. “It doesn’t help me tomorrow. It doesn’t. But it helps me today.”
Volunteers say the homeless are drawn to the beaches because of the open space and access to water and restrooms — not the meals. They feel that feeding people can build trust and lead the homeless to additional services, including housing.
“We understand that some residents and business owners in Dana Point are experiencing problems with the homeless. We are adamant, though, and disagree with the fact that we are contributing to the problem,” said Chris Phillips, who helps lead the volunteer network known as Welcome INN.
Tell that to Brian Brandt, a 55-year-old lawyer. He jogs at the state beach and takes his six children there to surf but these days he doesn’t let them go on their own. He said he’s seen volatile outbursts among the homeless and frequent police calls and wishes volunteers would stop offering meals at a place meant for community recreation.
“I don’t want to be seen as a bad guy — ‘OK, look at this heartless dude,’” he said. “I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel like my kids are safe.”
Resident Toni Nelson, who helped start a local neighbourhood group, is critical of the meal service but is looking for solutions. She has joined with housing advocates to try to raise money to house the homeless who have ties to the tight-knit community.
If about a third of the city’s 33,000 residents chip in $68, they figure they can house 46 homeless people identified in a recent survey for up to a year.
So far, dozens of people have signed up to give. But they still have a long way to go.
Robert Marbut, a consultant to communities on homelessness, believes it’s misguided to provide housing or other services without heavy incentives for recipients to be in treatment programs for mental health problems, addiction or other issues.
“Anytime you give out services without treatment,” Marbut said, “that’s enabling, period. … You’ve got to serve the food in a place where mental health is being provided.”
But Marbut insists that camping bans or crackdowns don’t work. And in fact, the encampment at the riverbed began when police in a host of cities refused to let the homeless sleep in parks or on bus benches. They headed to the trail along the flood channel, which is county property and cuts through several cities.
In recent years, the number of tents on the trail along the dried out riverbed has soared. Tents and tarps are surrounded by cardboard boxes and litter. Some of the people who live there travel up and down the trail on bikes, toting blankets or cans for recycling.
People say they ended up there for different reasons. For some, it was drug addiction. Others lost their jobs and couldn’t make rent.
Aly, the homeless advocate, said for those living there basic sanitation is key. His latest plan is to station a trailer he fitted with portable toilets and shower stalls on a street near the encampment but Anaheim city officials have raised health and safety concerns.
Many neighbours want help moved off the trail entirely. They said nearby neighbourhoods have suffered as the encampment has grown. Hypodermic needles have been found among pine needles in a park next to an elementary school. Shopping carts rattle as they’re pushed down otherwise quiet streets.
Some homeowners said their neighbours’ mail has gone missing, and potted plants from outside their homes. Some moved to Anaheim years ago when the city was smaller and more suburban to escape the bustle and traffic of Los Angeles. Now, they find themselves grappling with some of the same big city problems.
City officials said they want to move people off the riverbed and that any aid should be part of a broader effort to help people find a way out: “The goal shouldn’t be to make it slightly more comfortable there to live that way but rather, how can we get those folks to a better place?” said city spokesman Mike Lyster.
Unfortunately, those better places are limited. Orange County has shelter beds but they largely fill up. And many homeless said they don’t like the shelter’s curfew or rules barring pets and prefer their privacy, even outdoors. From 2015 to earlier this year, the number of people staying in Orange County shelters went down slightly, but the number living on the streets jumped by 17 per cent, federal data shows.
County authorities say they want to clear the riverbed and are trying to connect the men and women living there with the assistance they need to get back on their feet. Last summer, the county started providing showers along with case management services, hoping they can help those who want to find a way out.
Larry Ford, a 53-year-old U.S. army veteran, said he is grateful for any help. But like those at the beach in Dana Point, he insists food and showers don’t tether him to the tents surrounded by plastic bottles and toppled furniture.
“Look at this,” he said, pointing to heaps of garbage by his feet. “What is this enabling here?
“This is devastation.”