Faced with a crushing homelessness crisis that continues to be at the top of concerns for local residents, Riverside officials decided Tuesday night, August 2, to ban camping and property storage in areas at risk of fire and flooding .
Riverside City Council voted 6-1 to approve an ordinance making it illegal “for any person to sit, lie, sleep, or store, use, maintain, or place any bulky item or personal property in the so-called wildland-city interface.” Areas where neighborhoods rub against natural areas. These include the Santa Ana Riverbed, Hole Lake and Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park.
City council member Clarissa Cervantes voted no.
“Personally, I am concerned that enforcing the ordinance will have unintended consequences,” Cervantes said on Wednesday, Aug. 3, adding that there were not enough places in the city to accommodate people in riverbed camps.
“Where do you want them to go?” she asked.
City Council Member Jim Perry is one of those who supported the measure. People who live in homes or own businesses near the Santa Ana River live in fear that wildfires will wipe out their “lifetime investment,” Perry said, and the ordinance is a “good step” to address that.
“But we also need some coordination with the jurisdictions that surround us, because otherwise we’re moving them from one side of the river to the other and the problem isn’t going to go away,” he said.
The measure has been in the works for months and is intended to help a team consisting of 16 police officers, two police sergeants, eight field officers and two fire captains being assembled as part of a $5.8 million program to help evacuate people from the river bring -bed camps and into shelters or shelters. About a month ago, the council approved a five-year plan to tackle homelessness.
The plan’s rollout also follows a county decision in the spring to ban outdoor burning because of the drought and high fire risk.
Against the backdrop of rising real estate prices and increasing conflicts between local residents and those living on the streets, camps have spread to the wild areas along the city’s outskirts. Local residents and officials have said this trend is of particular concern in the fire-prone river area, where blazes regularly erupt and threaten nearby homes. Some wildfires were started by cooking and heating fires that escaped from people camping there.
Riverside firefighters have fought 163 river bed bushfires over the past five years, two-thirds of them man-made, according to a city report. City firefighters also fought 12 wildfires in Sycamore Canyon, four in the Hawarden Hills and one in the La Sierra Hills between 2017 and this year, the report said. Most of these flames were also set by humans.
Riverside County point-in-time counts revealed 587 homeless people in the city of Riverside as of the winter of 2020 and 514 this past winter. Much of the city’s homeless population is concentrated in wild areas.
During the summer and fall of 2021, outreach teams recorded 52 homeless encampments in the wildland urban interface areas, 39 of them within city limits and 13 just outside, the report said.
“Since January 2022, there have been 63 fires in Ward 1 alone, right at the bottom of the river,” Councilor Erin Edwards said.
“We must address both the fires and the humanitarian crisis that have been unfolding in the river bed for decades,” Edwards said.
City officials said they intend to comply with a key ruling by the Boise, Idaho federal appeals court that prohibits cities from uprooting people camping on public property when there are no shelters and other places to go, while allowing communities to limit the places and times people are allowed to sleep on public land.
But Cervantes said more needs to be done to address the needs of the homeless before the regulation, which goes into effect in September, is passed.
Wildfires are a serious threat to public safety and the river bottom is “not a healthy environment for people,” she said. But not everyone will agree to moving into a shelter or shelter, she said. With that in mind, Cervantes said she would like to provide a place in the city where the homeless can camp safely and legally.