With Riverside County’s unhoused population continuing to grow at an alarming rate— increasing 15 percent in the last two years—the Riverside City Council approved a new ordinance on Tuesday that bans camping or sleeping in unregulated vegetation near residential areas, including the Santa Ana River bottom, the Los Angeles Times reports.
According to the City Council, the ban was put in place to “regulate encampments in high fire areas.”
In recent years, suspected “human-caused fires” have been a common sight along the parched Santa Ana River bottom. The Riverside County Fire department reported 163 calls for vegetation fires in the riverbed over the last five years, 66 percent of which were human-caused.
The vote on Tuesday night was decided 6-1. The only dissenting member was Clarissa Cervantes, who was concerned that banning encampments in vegetation areas would mean that there would no longer be enough space for everyone living on the river bottom.
The majority cited a recent Los Angeles City Council ordinance which banned encampments near schools and daycare centers. The L.A. law has recently come under fire as protestors claim that it merely criminalizes homelessness, abstracting the situation of homelessness from the actual people experiencing it.
Riverside has struggled to curb the growth of its unhoused population, despite having invested $33.5 million of the city’s 2021-2022 budget in affordable housing projects.
The council has also approved a five-year plan to combat homelessness in Riverside County. The plan includes a “Wildlands Public Safety Engagement Team” comprising the Riverside Police Department, outreach workers from City Net and code enforcement officers to try to engage with people living in the Santa Ana River bottom, according to the Times.
The city stipulates that the new ordinance does not conflict with a federal court ruling that prohibits anti-camping bans where alternative housing is not available.
Riverside County has also started a Homeless Outreach Medication and Education program, “a new alternative sentencing program to help the homeless who are facing criminal prosecution for low-level crimes,” according to the Riverside District Attorney’s office.
However, in spite of such efforts, Riverside has identified an estimated 3,316 chronically homeless people living in the county this year.
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