February 15, 2017 (Fault Lines) — When referring to the homeless, advocates and government officials tend to use phrases like “Barriers to housing, barriers to health care or employment” as problems to be overcome. According to the ACLU in Orange County, California, officials have literally built a barrier fencing in a group of homeless people living along the Santa Ana river bank, effectively imprisoning them.
In a suit filed by the ACLU on behalf of a homeless man who has lived along the riverbed for three years, lawyers challenged the six-foot-high series of chain link fences:
Defendants’ actions have not only illegally restricted the liberty of the homeless people living in the encampment, but it has also cut them off from access to food, water, and medical care thus threatening their health and well-being. Children, people with severe disabilities, the elderly and others are deprived of food, water and access to restrooms.
It seems the county erected the fences to limit access to the area rather than fence people in. The county says it is using the fencing to protect the materials for a flood control project, but the likelihood that someone is going to steal large rocks and sand is nil.
For their part, the county claimed on February 8th through its public information officer, Carrie Braun that:
Our health agency outreach and the sheriff’s homeless liaison team came out today and asked for voluntary compliance. There have been signs posted since Jan. 25 informing those who are encamped in the area of the project. … They have offered them resources providing them an opportunity to stay in a shelter. Some decided to take that opportunity and some didn’t.
Braun was either unaware or neglected to mention that police have been directing the homeless to the riverbed as an alternative to being ticketed, leaving them literally between some rocks and a hard place.
Signs posted since January 25 are not exactly effective notice especially if you have no-place to go. People tend to think the homeless should just up and move at a moment’s notice as if their possessions and the spot they have found to eke out a semblance of life are trivial. More fortunate folk don’t realize that each step in the process of falling into homelessness comes with a form of homeostasis:
After you have lost your home, you have your car and there is still comfort in that. Comfort in being able to move it, in having a place to store your possessions, meager as they may be. Comfort in being able to quietly read a book while safe from the rain, or somewhat warmer when it’s cold. Then, after you have lost your car because it broke down, was towed away, stolen or impounded, you can still find comfort in the spot you found to sleep and the shelter you created from found materials with its limited capacity to store your now even fewer possessions.
At some point there’s no place of comfort to retreat to. What happens then is that people get pushed back so far they can’t see hope anymore. Hope is what people need more than anything else to build up the will to keep going, to find their way back to where they were or better.
To their credit it’s not like Santa Ana hasn’t tried. In October last year, a former bus terminal known as the Courtyard opened up to homeless people full time but immediately filled to capacity. There have been some rumblings about abusive staff working for the outfit hired to run the facility as well, called Midnight Mission, an LA based non-profit, but it hasn’t been widely reported on.
Calls to numerous Santa Ana homeless shelter and organization staff members did not lead to a single mention of a shelter in Orange County with the capacity to suddenly accommodate several hundred more people, so public information officer Carrie Braun’s statement that people fenced in at the riverbank were offered shelter doesn’t ring true. Does Santa Ana really need that space to store some rocks and sand or is it another way to scatter the homeless?
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