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Riverside delays final vote on ordinance that would ban encampments along Santa Ana River bottom

Encampment seen by the Santa Ana River bottom on Sept. 1, 2022.
Jonathan Linden
91.9 KVCR
Encampment seen by the Santa Ana River bottom on Sept. 1, 2022.

The Riverside City Council was set to vote Tuesday on an ordinance that would ban homeless encampments along the Santa Ana Riverbed. That vote has now been delayed.

The move to delay the vote on the encampment ban was welcome news to John Sevier. He's a case manager with the homeless outreach group Starting Over Inc. Sevier and his group have criticized the proposed ordinance and held a protest last week outside Riverside City Hall.

Sevier thinks the city should focus more on providing resources instead of laws he says criminalize homelessness. "Ultimately, I wanted more time to be able to galvanize the community and uplift the voices of people that need to be heard," Sevier said.

That includes people like David Rawley, who has been along the Santa Ana River for the past two years.
"It's a hard life living down there," Rawley said. "This is where we end up if you end up homeless without prospects of a job or work."

The new proposed city ordinance may force David and many others to leave. Last month, the city council tentatively approved a rule that would declare encampments illegal in high-fire areas, including where David lives along the riverbed.

City Councilmember Erin Edwards introduced the ordinance in response to increased fires along the riverbed. "I would say this is one of the biggest issues in my ward and to the residents here," Edwards said.

According to Edwards, there have been over 60 fires along the city's section of the river this year. And with more people living along the river bottom, Edwards worries that fire risk could increase. "It's very dangerous for everyone, for those who are living in the river bottom, for those who are living around the river bottom, and for the fire professionals who come to put out the fires," Edwards said.

Some critics of the proposal say Riverside hasn't done enough to allocate resources to unhoused community members. If the city were to remove individuals from the river, not having enough beds could put the city in violation of the federal court case Martin v. Boise. The 2018 case ruled that cities cannot enforce ani-camping ordinances if they don't have enough homeless shelter beds.

Councilmember Edwards says the proposal won't be in violation of that ruling. "We're not saying that it's illegal to sleep, which is the Boise case," Edwards said. "We're not saying that it's a crime to be homeless. But you cannot camp in this hazardous area due to fire and flood."

John Sevier with Starting Over says that delaying the vote proves something else. "The fact that they took it off the docket for Tuesday is a good indication that they didn't have the optics on the situation that they could have and that there is room for improvement," Sevier said.

During their annual homeless point-in-time count, Riverside County reported over 500 individuals experiencing homelessness this year in the City of Riverside. Philip Falcone with the Riverside Mayors' office said that the proposed ordinance is heading back to the city attorney's office. In a statement, Councilmember Edwards says the ordinance will be back on the city council docket for their Sept. 20 meeting.

Jonathan Linden was a reporter at 91.9 KVCR in San Bernardino, California. He joined KVCR in July 2021 and served with the station till October 2022.