How LA River cleanup project avoids homeless encampment issues

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Los Angeles saw a spike in homelessness last year by 20 percent and for years, the homeless have been attracted to camping out along the river, away from populated streets.

But, as river cleanup efforts are at an all-time high, so are efforts to find permanent housing for the homeless.

The homeless encampment that grew to roughly 1,000 people along the Santa Ana River Trail in Orange County created health, environmental and public safety issues. In neighboring L.A. County, the homeless have lived along the L.A. River for decades. But Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, whose district includes part of the river, sees a big difference in the approach from local governments.

"That didn't happen on its own. That happened because there was no one watching that, put any attention or care into dealing with that," O'Farrell said.

The city is pouring millions into restoring the river, which includes everything from offering kayaking and bike paths to cleaning up garbage and any homeless encampments.

'We will have the occasional encampment that will spread and partially block the path, but we send teams out to deal with it immediately so it doesn't fester," O'Farrell said.

A homeless camp of over 100 people existed along the I-5 in Elysian Village for a few months, but thanks to outreach teams from the city, who work to clear encampments and find the homeless permanent housing, it's now gone.

But, Ken Babel, who lives a block from the river, worries the homeless will just move to another location.

"I think it can happen here. It's really a tough job. Outreach can help, but we probably need more affordable housing for that population. We're seeing the big tent cities. How large is it going to get and how bad will the problem get with the drugs and trash?" Babel said.

Robert Vance walks along the river in northeast Los Angeles every day and said he's amazed at how clean the area is. He understands why the homeless would want to live in an area this pristine.

"If you don't have any place to go and it's the only place of peace, I could understand why people would want to congregate here. But it's making sure city officials do everything they can to make sure that this area stays clean and peaceful and a family neighborhood," he said.

The mayor's proposed budget includes $430 million for homeless programs, with a big focus on permanent housing. O'Farrell is working to build that housing along the river corridor.
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