ANAHEIM, Calif. – The row of tents and tarps stretches two miles along the parched riverbed and houses hundreds of homeless. The garbage-strewn strip is also the site of a popular bike path where cyclists in colorful gear zoom by those seeking food, a shower or a job.
Over the past two years, the trail that cuts through the heart of Southern California's Orange County has become the site of a ballooning homeless encampment that officials say has been fueled by exorbitant housing costs, mental illness and drug use.
Amid an uproar from residents, the city of Anaheim declared an emergency Wednesday in an attempt to cope with the crisis and speed the addition of shelter beds. A day earlier, Orange County officials passed a measure to step up police patrols.
"It has grown to a number where they can't just go in and enforce the anti-camping (ordinance) because you can't in one fell swoop find a bed for every one of these people," said Mike Lyster, a city spokesman.
Anaheim is the latest California city to declare a state of emergency because of a growing homeless crisis. San Diego is struggling with a hepatitis outbreak that has killed 16 and is spreading among the homeless population.
Denise Romo, 55, is among those living along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim, not far from the stadium that is home to the Los Angles Angels. She said she lost her $250-a-week babysitting job after she was struck last year by a car and her arm was fractured. She couldn't pay for the motel room she rented and wound up homeless.
After seeing people on the riverbed, Romo decided to give it a try and said she feels much safer than on the streets. She has carved out a small area with a tent and lawn chair for herself and a black dog named Girl and said she tries to steer clear of other areas of the homeless encampment plagued by drugs and theft.
"I don't know where I'm going to go," she said, adding that her two sons are in jail. "If I could get shelter, I'd go to a shelter."
The Orange County Sheriff's Department plans to boost patrols starting Friday to curtail crime on the trail. Officials earlier this year hired a nonprofit for a six-month pilot project to connect homeless to housing and resources and so far, 60 people have moved out, said Carrie Braun, a county spokeswoman.
"If you are considering to get resources, this is a time to get resources," she said, adding the eventual goal is to clear the area.
The county recently opened a year-round homeless shelter and is expanding it but more housing options are needed, she said.
Anaheim resident Shaun Dove welcomed his city's move but wishes it came sooner. The 45-year-old started an online petition after neighbors complained of stolen bikes and a rise in homeless.
"It is two years too late, but at least you're doing it now," he said of Anaheim's resolution.
Lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said court rulings have held that authorities can't move homeless residents without an alternative. They said they're concerned about where Anaheim officials intend to move people, many of whom are disabled or ill.
Officials said they hope to help those on the strip who want to leave. Angela Peifer, 32, is one of them. She has a job as a caregiver but only 16 hours a week, which isn't enough for her to move to a new place with her fiancé and two dogs.
"I'm so ready to get out of here," she said.
But not everyone is convinced a roof over their heads is the answer. Lee Redmond, 63, said he has been out of a job for six years and can't see anyone hiring him at his age.
"I don't like being inside," Redmond said. "I'm OK inside for a night or two, and I've got to come back out."
Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.