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Council votes to prohibit encampments in high fire areas

On Tuesday, August 2, the Riverside City Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance amending the Riverside Municipal Code, that would prohibit encampments in high fire areas in the city of Riverside, particularly the Santa Ana River bottom.

An encampment in the Santa Ana River bottom near near Martha McLean Park.

“There have been 63 river bottom fires in Ward 1 this year, three of which happened in the last ten days alone,” said Ward 1 Councilmember Erin Edwards in public Facebook post on August 1. “We are closer than ever to addressing the humanitarian and ecological crises in the river now that the Wildlands Public Safety and Engagement Team (PSET) passed in June. It is not illegal to be homeless, but it is too unsafe for anyone to live in the river bottom. We will continue working on building up resources to meet our community’s needs while addressing the issue of fire in our wildlands.”

During the Council meeting, City staff, including legal, homeless solutions and fire provided a presentation which covered legal, humanitarian, and fire safety issues of encampments.

City Attorney Phaedra Norton offered examples of ordinances other cities have adopted in addressing similar issues as a “broad framework” for the council for historical and legal reference. Further discussion on this issue is scheduled for the Public Safety Committee meeting in September.

Dr. Lorissa Villarreal, Homeless Solutions Officer provided information on the various shelters, programs, and services available to homeless residents in Riverside.

In his presentation on fire safety, Interim Fire Chief LaWayne Hearn expressed concern that unsheltered people who live in high fire areas are at risk for not receiving emergency notifications or safely evacuating. Fires for cooking and warmth also have the potential of setting brush on fire and spreading to other areas.

Hearn shared a map that represented five years of wildland fires within the river bottom and surrounding area, stating that the fire department responded of the 163 vegetation fires in the Santa Ana River bottom, 66% were caused by humans. Of the 12 vegetation calls in Sycamore Canyon, 62% were caused by humans, and of the four fires in Hawarden Hills, 75% were caused by humans. He also shared a video of a four-alarm vegetation fire near Martha McLean Park at the Santa Ana River bottom, taken in April.

Public comment on this matter ranged from concern for river bottom residents, lack of housing for the unsheltered and Riverside communities near the Santa Ana River.

“This ordinance is a failure to follow housing first practices in a return to the failed policies of criminalization. It does not address its stated goals of preventing fires and reducing costs. Instead, [it] wastes taxpayer money by continuing lawsuits and increasing the burden according to lawsuits and increasing the burden on our Police Department. It is unconstitutional and makes us less safe,” said Kyle Sweeny. “We have nowhere near enough the housing and shelter needed [and] the few shelters have insufficient beds, significant restrictions, and are temporary at best.”

“I am currently a resident of the Santa Ana River bottom. With Homeless Court it appears that you can come down here and do a full sweep and criminalize the residents and then institutionalize them and sometimes as well,” said Elaine Sanders. “[For serious crimes we] receive thirty days in jail. However, thirty days in a treatment center seems a little unjust and unfair. What happens after the resident is done with their program? They have nowhere to go so we end up back in the city or deeper into the river bottom. When it comes down to the fire issue, we wouldn’t be setting our own homes on fire. I know that you don’t want to set your own home on fire and neither do we.”

Speaking on behalf of the ordinance Megan Brousseau, Inland Empire Kids Outdoors said,
“I know that our neighbors who have spoken tonight against this ordinance are doing so out of compassion and kindness, but I contend that letting our neighbors experiencing homelessness in that river is not compassionate as they suffer physically and mentally regardless of the cause.” She added, “passing this ordinance only puts a tool in our tool chest it does not mean a drastic movement but rather allows us to use it strategically and within measure.”

“My house is close to Martha McClean Park and my office is near the river bottom, so I’m no stranger to the activities in and around the river bottom,” said Ruben Ayala, who spoke during the early afternoon portion of the meeting. “Homelessness is one of those things that’s a huge problem with no easy fix and it can be difficult to talk about it because often people will accuse you of not having compassion or not caring,” Ayala added. “I do care about people, but I also believe in accountability. We can have compassion and accountability. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. It seems like we could work together and come up with a system that has both and get some real results.”

“As someone who’s worked in the Santa Ana River for over 20 years [I] know it’s a humanitarian crisis, an environmental crisis, and trying to find solutions that are humane as well as environmentally sound is something that I feel very strongly about,” said Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson after public comment. “We are working very diligently to try to find housing resources, job resources, and connect people with services. This is something my office does; fifty percent of our time is spent on that and getting funding for new housing. I know several of our council members feel very passionate about that as well, so I think this is this is a good effort to try to be as humane as possible but also solve many problems.”

Councilmember Erin Edwards reiterated information from her Facebook post about the 63 fires that have taken place recently, including others not in Ward 1, bringing the total to 84 fires since January. “I’ve heard loud and clear from residents in my district that we need to address both the fires and the humanitarian crisis that is decades in the making in the river bottom and this council has already begun to take many steps to do so,” Edwards said.

“Just as I have heard comments in support, I have heard the comments in opposition and want to speak to those thoughtful concerns against the ordinance briefly. I hear the concern that increased criminalization is a contradiction to our housing first principles” she said. “Since November we have sent outreach teams down to the river bottom to do a census of those who’ve lived there to understand exactly what services these individuals need and to eliminate as many barriers as we can to help people move from the river bottom into housing.”

Edwards added that part of that outreach includes helping people apply for documents they need to access housing, coordinating with county partners for behavioral health, and opening an additional 78 shelter beds last year, amongst other steps.

“I am proud that we are taking many steps to address this complex issue,” she said.

Ward 2 Councilmember Clarissa Cervantes expressed concern that if the ordinance passed that night, there would not be enough time or enough beds to accommodate river bottom residents.

“I don’t know if taking this action today is the right time because we don’t have enough beds available,” Cervantes said. “We are going to create further problems if we don’t have anywhere for these individuals to go.”

After sharing more thoughts on the matter, including the possibility of using unused warehouses or hotels as potential transitional housing and alternative camping locations, Cervantes said she didn’t see how the ordinance could be approved that night in good faith.

“I don’t believe we have the solutions in place [at this time]” she said.

“I think it’s time to act, that’s why in June I supported this and today I make the motion to support this Public Safety Committee recommendation,” said Ward 5 Councilmember Gaby Plascencia.

The recommendation passed 6 – 1, with Councilmember Cervantes voting no.

Public comments and councilmember comments have been edited for space and clarity. You may view the entire meeting online. The encampment ordinance discussion begins at 3:45:13.