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Police Disband O.C.'s 'Club Homeless' : Encampment: Longtime freeway squatters are ousted, leaving them adrift.

March 17, 1994|GREG HERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUNTINGTON BEACH — For the past three years, home for Don Wilson has been a thick tangle of oleander and acacia bushes in the shadow of the San Diego Freeway at Beach Boulevard.

Dubbed "Club Homeless" by its dozen longtime inhabitants, this patch of ground is honeycombed with a walled bathroom, closets, dressers, a couch, recliners, a covered storage shack, a vanity area complete with mirror, and other amenities of home.

But on Wednesday, residents of the encampment--some of whom said they have lived here for five years--were rousted by state Department of Transportation workers and law enforcement officials, who ordered them to leave.

For Wilson, a 59-year-old unemployed plumber, this meant packing more belongings than he could possibly carry, including a makeshift kitchen complete with propane-fueled stove and oven, dishes, pots and pans, a row of coffee mugs, and a spice rack stocked with everything from rosemary to nutmeg.

"All they are doing is putting everybody on a Bataan Death March," Wilson said. "They are not solving a problem, they are compounding a problem. They are basically saying that they want us to walk the streets until we drop dead.

"I don't have the slightest idea what I'm going to do," he said.

Huntington Beach police said they asked Caltrans to clear the area after nearby business owners complained about car break-ins and shoplifting, crimes which authorities attributed to the homeless people near the freeway overpass at the border of Huntington Beach and Westminster.

"We are not against the homeless, but we are against anyone who commits or supports any kind of criminal activity," said police Lt. Luis Ochoa. "It's been a nagging problem."

"We've had, over a period of time, a series of thefts from surrounding apartments and commercial buildings, and from vehicles, and we've identified that area as a source of these thefts," Ochoa added.

Wilson and other longtime residents of the encampment complained that they are being punished for the actions of a few transients or runaways who have passed through the area.

"Some kid came in here with some stolen cellular phones and we made him take them back," said Ron Arnold, a 41-year-old former carpenter whose python, Suzy Q, shared his living space in the encampment. "We run the bad apples right out."

Heather Hodges, who is five months' pregnant, began living in the makeshift shelter with her boyfriend and a pair of dogs two months ago. The couple receive food stamps, but both are currently jobless.

"We don't want to be here, but we have no choice," said Hodges, 21. "It was comfortable and no one bothered us. It's like one big family who can't afford to have their own house."

As he packed his belongings, which once filled a small wooden shack he had built himself, Arnold seemed most concerned about his pet python, which he said animal-control workers had taken away.

"I'm really upset that they took away my snake," Arnold said. "That's really lousy."

The residents of the encampment note that shelter beds for the county's estimated 12,000 homeless people are in short supply.

"Incidents like this underscore the need for a long-term solution to the homeless problem," said Tim Shaw, executive director of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force. "It's always sad when things like this happen. It's sad that people have to live under a freeway in the first place."

"Most of the reports I have heard about this community is that they are a fairly docile group and pretty self-regulating. They didn't really care for the riffraff coming in," Shaw said.

Representatives from the Mental Health Assn. of Orange County, a nonprofit agency, visited with the homeless Wednesday morning, providing them with information about shelters and other sources of assistance.

"We just want to let them know that there are some options that exist," said program coordinator Paul Wager. "There are some temporary shelters that they can go to and long-term shelters available also."

But Wager conceded that the situation is grim.

"There's less than one bed for every 10 homeless people in Orange County," Wager said. "There are not the resources being allocated to deal with the problem adequately at this time. It's a tough situation."

Although the appearance of law enforcement officials Wednesday morning was a jarring sight for the group, it did not come as a complete surprise: Flyers announcing the eviction had been distributed earlier this week, in accordance with Caltrans policy.

Caltrans spokesman Albert Miranda said the agency tried to handle the eviction "in the most humane way possible."

"We wanted to give them an opportunity to pack up their belongings and their pets," Miranda said. "It's a sad situation. I wish we didn't have to do it."

In addition to the concern over crime, Miranda said there are other hazards posed by people living near a freeway.

"We have to remove them because of safety concerns for the motorists," he said. "Especially if they have been there a while and set up a shelter. There are safety problems and sanitation problems."

Miranda said crews will clean the area of personal belongings, which the agency will store free for 30 days, and will trim the thick bushes to make them less inviting to the homeless.

Paul Gray, a Huntington Beach attorney, had unsuccessfully tried to intercede on behalf of the group by asking Caltrans to delay the eviction for a few more days.

"They had been there for several years, so to have them move out with just a couple of days' notice is entirely inadequate," Gray said. "It's probably proper notification if they had just been trespassers, but they've been living there for such a long time. They basically had developed a de facto homeless shelter."

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