For Andrea Tabor, running the Neighborhood Watch program at her 332-unit condominium complex means constant vigilance, mostly because of threats — real or otherwise — posed by the area’s homeless.
At 70, Tabor still works full time, but the neighborhood chores she describes sound like a second job.
Routinely, she said, she walks the ungated property in Anaheim, looking for signs of squatters. The e-mail list she updates goes out to some 150 people. She knows local cops by name.
She’s convinced authorities to fence off a railroad area near her complex as a way to keep away the homeless. She regularly urges nearby business owners to do what they can to drive away the homeless.
And, always, Tabor tells her neighbors to call police if they see or experience anything suspicious, particularly related to the homeless.
Tabor didn’t always feel such concern. She said she used to see homeless people and feel badly that they’d been displaced by economic change.
But as her community has become a spot where homeless routinely seek everything from refuge to a garbage dump to victims, her feelings have changed.
“It’s a nightmare,” Tabor said.
Saying she’s frustrated by rampant drug use and thefts and the physical threat she feels from the homeless, she added this:
“The anger starts small and builds,” she said. “It really builds.”
That anger is spreading.
In communities as diverse as Upland and Santa Monica and Dana Point, neighborhoods throughout Southern California are being changed by the arrival of homeless encampments, an off-shoot of the region’s changing economy and spiking prices for homes and rental properties. Long-time residents — even many who insist that they feel compassion for the homeless — are frustrated by living under the dual threats of violence and squalor-related health woes.
Property values are under siege. So is peace of mind. And as homelessness continues to grow throughout Southern California — and when some real steps have been taken to help the homeless — fear and anger are threatening to take the problem in a new, darker direction.
Guns on the table
At a Town Hall event in Anaheim this summer, the topic was how the city should — or shouldn’t — deal with a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River, including an area described in official documents as District 5.
Though homeless advocates and others offered plans for deal with the problem over the long term, including sanitation and a path toward housing, many residents wanted more urgent action. After several speakers told city officials that they wanted the homeless to be forced to leave, one man drew particularly loud applause when he hinted at violence:
“We’re all armed,” he told officials. “Maybe we should take our city back.”
He would have drawn applause in any number of Southern California communities.
In Upland, a town that touts a moniker “City of Gracious Living,” the friction recently did involve a firearm.
According to a police report and firsthand accounts, a resident who often cleans public property was spreading some weed killing pesticide near a homeless camp near the 10 freeway last month. A homeless man later complained to police that resident sprayed pesticide into his soda cup and, later, his eye.
Then, during a tussle over a bag of recyclables in a nearby parking lot, the resident pulled a gun.
The resident, who has a concealed weapon permit, told police he felt threatened as he became surrounded by homeless people. The homeless man who said he was sprayed said the gun was aimed at his chest.
Both sides accused the other of battery; the district attorney’s office later declined to file charges.
Some believe such incidents soon could become common.
“(Residents) are going to think they can go out there with their vigilante actions and nothing will happen to them,” homeless advocate Christy Mac told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
‘Fed up for years’
Last year, in Anaheim, police took more than 15,000 homeless-related calls. Complaints echoed the calls that have been pouring in to police departments thorughout the region in recent years — thefts; open drug abuse; discarded hypodermic needles; aggressive panhandling; public defecation and urination; snarling dogs; feral cats; vagrants roaming aimlessly; unprovoked outbursts of anger.
Residents argue that criminals increasingly are hiding behind the cloak of homelessness as a way to prey on their communities. Some make a distinction between homeless people who need and want help and others who take advantage. But patience, generally speaking, is wearing thin.
Nancy Collins, who recently helped organize a neighborhood meeting with a councilman in Orange, said the bottom line is fear.
“This has gone from a compassion issue to a lawlessness issue,” Collins said.
Mohammed Aly, an Orange County attorney who has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of how cities and other local governments are responding to the rise of homelessness, says the homeless are being “criminalized” for social conditions over which they have no control.
“And it’s wrong,” Aly said. “It’s just wrong.”
But others, including leaders who have pushed to help the homeless, note that anger from residents isn’t unfounded — and it isn’t going away.
“People have been fed up for years. And it is rising,” said Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno, who has been criticized for voting to provide portable toilets near homeless tent encampments at the Santa Ana River, something he sees as both a humane gesture and necessary sanitation.
Moreno insists that most of his constituents still feel empathy, even as they vent their frustrations. Many, Moreno note, preface their remarks with a disclaimer: “Don’t get me wrong, I understand the plight. But we are tired of this …'”
Moreno is concerned about the shifting tone, and he sees it as part of broader discontent in civic life.
“I worry about where the conversation is going,” he said. “If you replace the word ‘homeless’ with ‘immigrant,’ it’s that same rhetoric.
“That’s why I’m worried.”
Too close for comfort
A sense of helplessness has spurred fiery gatherings in neighborhoods throughout Southern California.
In Riverside, neighborhood residents earlier this year asked a local church to stop feeding the homeless, or at least restrict serving free meals to seniors and families with children. The residents had grown tired of people gathering outside their homes or pitching tents nearby.
The church declined, leaving the situation unresolved.
That back and forth is an example of a shift in the debate. Increasingly, faith groups, activists, and other volunteers who feed, clothe and provide myriad services to the homeless, are being viewed as “enablers,” who residents blame for attracting and fueling the growth of encampments.
Homeowners, at public meeting after public meeting, say they feel like they’re under attack. They talk about the motion sensitive lights and security cameras and the 8-foot-high walls they’ve installed to discourage vagrants from trespassing on their property. They talk about the parks they used to love but now avoid, saying they no longer can walk or jog along once-favorite paths. Some say they won’t stop at convenience stores or other retail establishments where they might be confronted by homeless people.
“We used to worry about gangs,” a woman testified during the recent Anaheim town hall. “(But) no one’s scared of gangs, I’ll tell you that. They’re scared of the homeless.”
Then the woman added this: “Moreno, our councilman, preaches compassion. (But) enough with the compassion! Somebody needs to do something to stop the homeless. It’s out of control.”
Who is in that tent?
It’s not just the rising tide of homelessness. Residents fear what they describe as an increasingly violent homeless population.
Ramon Carrizosa, a long-time area resident who runs his family’s print and machine shops in downtown Pomona, recounts the plight of a long-time homeless man in the area. The man, Carrizosa said, was notable because he kept his belongings organized and would sweep his area to keep it clean.
But about two years ago, Carrizosa and the homeless man watched new tent encampments pop up near downtown. The new crowd, he said, prompted the man with the broom to feel uncomfortable.
“He actually left,” Carrizosa said
“It just grew,” he added, referring to the new homeless camp. “I mean, it was like wildfire.”
Worse, he said, the camp included people selling drugs in an all-day open market across the street. One encampment housed about 50 bicycles, which Carrizosa suspected was a chop shop run by thieves.
He said he’s regularly called 9-1-1, asking police to stop the fights on the sidewalk. And there have been shootings.
Customers, he added, are frightened.
“People would call and say ‘I’m down the street and I’m afraid to get out of my car.'”
Carrizosa, whose mother has served on the Pomona City Council for two decades, felt differently about this group of homeless people than he did about the individuals he used to meet, who he said seemed to be suffering through no fault of their own.
“Those people do need help as much as we can (give) as a community,” he said.
“But these other people, they just flat out don’t care. There’s nothing you are going to be able to do to get them anywhere productive again.”
It seems to Carrizosa, and many others, that there is a new “nomad” type of homeless, men and women who make homelessness a lifestyle and are not natives of his city. It’s a common distinction made elsewhere when determining who deserves empathy, though such notions are disputed by surveys of homeless people and by those who call for housing and services rather than increased punitive measures.
Still, skeptics don’t believe them.
A few years ago, business owners pressured the Pomona council to drive the homeless away. But about a year ago, after the city cracked down, Pomona was forced to settle a federal lawsuit over the seizure and disposal of property belonging to homeless people.
Since losing that suit — a threat that public officials in many communities say ties their hands — Pomona has added about 400 temporary storage lockers for use by homeless people. And, earlier this year, the city approved the purchase of land for a 175-bed shelter.
But homelessness already sparked a political shift in Pomona.
“It’s not about being cruel,” said Pomona councilman Rubio R. Gonzalez, who noted that his stance as an advocate for residents and merchants helped lead to his election in November. “When there wasn’t that many (homeless) it was tolerable. But then it became more of an invasion.”
He is banking on the shelter being an answer to the problem, and hopes Pomona can serve as an example to other cities.
“If it doesn’t work,” he said of the shelter, “we’re all going to get voted out.”
Skid Row’s shadow
Much of the fear starts at Skid Row.
The stretch of downtown Los Angeles has been a gathering spot for the homeless for decades. The possibility of a similar scene taking root in their cities and neighborhoods is what drives much of the debate throughout Southern California.
The homeless encampment along the river in Anaheim is being described by some observers as “Skid River,” referencing L.A.’s Skid Row. An area in the Santa Ana Civic Center, officially known as Plaza of the Flags for the banners that outline its perimeter, is pejoratively referred to as “Little Bangladesh.” And those whose livelihoods are tied in some way to working with the homeless are sometimes described as being part of the “Homeless Industrial Complex.”
And the arguments over homeless camps are getting a lot of attention.
An online petition launched in August by an Anaheim resident with the title “No More Homeless Encampments: We Want Our Santa Ana River Trail and City Parks Back!” quickly gained traction. This week, it had nearly 14,000 signatures. A video shot by a bicyclist riding through the homeless encampment has gone viral, bringing some 1.5 million views.
Still, even as the backlash grows, homeless activists like Aly, who founded a group called Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition, insist on humane treatment of homeless people, saying they’ve been victimized by the region’s housing crisis as well as a lack of services to help the mentally ill or stave off substance abuse.
Others who work with the homeless on the streets call for better understanding — on all sides.
“They have all the right to be concerned,” said Donald Dermit, known as “Pastor Donald” for his ministry to homeless people in Anaheim and surrounding areas, referencing the desire for a tougher response to the homeless crisis.
“But, hey, let’s all work together and hit those concerns and help end homelessness,” Dermit added.
“We need more than one solution — we need solutions.”
When Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait opened the standing-room-only meeting in City Council chambers with the District 5 residents, he invoked the civic legacy that he’s tried to build for Anaheim as a “City of Kindness.”
“Kindness means caring about one another, caring about our neighbors,” Tait told the audience.
But he added: “It also means holding people accountable.”
Staff writers Jordan Graham, Liset Marquez, Greg Mellen, Joseph Pimentel, Erika Ritchie, Alicia Robinson and Jonathan Winslow contributed to this report.
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