Los Angeles Times

Riverside models tent ban on L.A. policy

Officials cite fire risk in barring camps in Santa Ana River bottom, other areas.

- By Summer Lin

In an effort to address a burgeoning unhoused population and increasing fire risk, the Riverside City Council has approved a ban on camping or sleeping in areas where undevelope­d vegetation runs up against homes, including the Santa Ana River bottom.

The ordinance makes it illegal to “sit, lie, sleep, or store, use, maintain, or place any bulky item or personal property” in the so-called wildland-urban interface. Before the 6-1 vote Tuesday night, city officials cited an anti-camping ordinance passed last year by the Los Angeles City Council designatin­g certain areas off-limits to encampment­s; the law has drawn criticism from activists who say it criminaliz­es homelessne­ss.

Councilmem­ber Clarissa Cervantes was the lone no vote, citing concerns that there will not be enough shelter for everyone living in the river bottom.

Exacerbate­d by extreme drought, probable “human

caused” fires have ignited in the river bottom over the years, prompting officials to propose the anti-camping ordinance. In the last five years, the Riverside Fire Department has responded to 163 calls for vegetation fires in the Santa Ana River bottom, 66% of which were caused by humans, according to a city report.

Riverside has struggled with homelessne­ss for years, allotting $33.5 million of its city budget in 2021-22 to create affordable housing and address the crisis.

In June, the City Council approved a five-year plan to reduce homelessne­ss that includes assembling 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.

Once shelter and housing are made available, the team will conduct anti-camping enforcemen­t and camp cleanup.

Officials said they will abide by a federal court ruling that forbids cities from enforcing prohibitiv­e camping ordinances when alternativ­e housing isn’t available. The county this year has identified 3,316 homeless people, 59.71% of whom don’t have shelter. As more people have resided in the Santa Ana River bottom and remote canyon areas, fire risk has increased.

During Tuesday’s meeting, officials also highlighte­d the Riverside County Partnershi­p for the Homeless Outreach Mediation and Education program, an alternativ­e criminal sentencing program for those who are experienci­ng homelessne­ss or are on the verge of homelessne­ss.

In order to qualify for the program, which promotes a treatment-based approach to sentencing, rather than incarcerat­ion or fines, the person must be charged with a nonviolent misdemeano­r and be evaluated by the court, attorneys and Riverside University Health System-Behavioral Health.

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