Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Encampments
Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampments. Image: YouTube

An ordinance declaring homeless encampments illegal along a large swath of the Santa Ana River bottom in Riverside due to fire and other hazards is slated to be formally approved Tuesday evening by the City Council.

In a 6-1 vote last month, the council tentatively approved the ordinance, which declares camps or other temporary living facilities within space along the river bottom designated “wildland urban interface” illegal.

The second reading of the ordinance Tuesday night is expected to result in final approval, starting the clock on a 30-day implementation period, after which it will become law.

“We have a humanitarian and environmental crisis in the river bottom,” Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said in early August. “This ordinance will help protect not just residents who have seen their homes threatened by dozens of fires in recent months, but also the people living in these fire-prone areas whose lives are at risk, while addressing impacts to wildlife and water quality.”

The ordinance specifies that “sitting, lying, sleeping” or maintaining habitable space along or in the river bottom within city limits is strictly prohibited.

The new regulations would permit police, fire, code enforcement and other municipal officials to dismantle transient camps and place items belonging to homeless individuals in storage facilities. No civil penalties are established under the ordinance, which recognizes that the city would provide resources, including temporary shelter, to those impacted.

The regulatory apparatus would only be enforceable within the Riverside segments of the Santa Ana River, spanning an east-west stretch from Highgrove to Norco, not impacting the Jurupa Valley segments.

If formally adopted, the ordinance would be taking effect at about the same time work begins on an upgraded levee network in the river bottom.

The Riverside County Flood Control & Water Conservation District announced at the end of August that crews will be initiating a four-year project to fortify levees to mitigate flood hazards between Jurupa Valley and Riverside. The $36 million project will require removing transient camps in the construction zone on the Jurupa Valley side of the river bottom.

Both sides of the channel would, effectively, become off limits to transients, though camps are known to be abandoned and re-established on a re-occurring basis year-round.

Last fall, the city counted 39 homeless encampments along segments of the river bottom within municipal boundaries, according to officials.

Two-thirds of the brush fires that crews battled in the river bottom between the first half of 2017 and the first half of 2022 were human-caused, according to data collected by the Riverside Fire Department.

Blazes routinely erupt due to cooking, warming and debris fires in transient camps. Properties have been damaged, along with public infrastructure, and residents have been placed under evacuation orders on numerous occasions.

According to the city, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the authority of municipalities to enact time, place and manner restrictions that prohibit sleeping or loitering for extended periods in public spaces, as long as alternative dwelling arrangements are available.

The “wildland urban interface” designation establishes guidelines for mitigating fire risks where housing density reaches a certain level amid natural vegetation.

“Riverside is doing more than any other city in our county to provide shelter and housing for people dealing with homelessness,” Councilman Ronaldo Fierro said. “This ordinance is part of a larger strategy to reduce risk in fire-prone areas, while assisting people who currently are living in these dangerous conditions.”

Only Councilwoman Clarissa Cervantes cast an opposing vote when the ordinance was introduced, expressing concern for the welfare of those who may be pushed out of encampments.

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