On my last overnight tour around Southern California I took the Santa Ana River Trail dirt option. The dirt trail runs along the opposite side of the river as the paved tail for most of the route.
I will post a write up of the full trip next, but I first wanted to focus on the homeless population along the trail. I have ridden the trail since the 1980s. Homeless people have always been present along the trail but in small numbers and hidden away. You had to be looking to see their shelters and I never saw a single homeless person out while riding the trail. I would consider them briefly as I rode by and I hoped and prayed that they would get help, though I knew it was more complicated than that.
This day as I was riding along I encountered a much larger group than I had seen before. I presumed it was because I was on the dirt side of the trail and I had a better angle on some of their hiding places.
The people living in the river bed alarmed me. They were pretty vulnerable down there. When it rains this winter they will have to move. They could lose what little they have and could be in danger. Their presence there was illegal and it would be well known to local authorities, charities and emergency agencies. I did think it odd that people were out and around rather than staying out of sight. What I didn’t realize is that I had encountered the tip of the iceberg.
The number of homeless communities I saw grew as I rode, even on the paved side of the trail, their numbers adding up to the thousands along a stretch of a few miles.
The bike trail was crowded to the edges in many places with people, tents, their belongings and volunteer workers.
I was flooded with mixed emotions. What had happened to cause such a dramatic increase in the number of homeless people? This was not the usual reclusive homeless population. They were out and about, taking out their garbage and I presume using the many parks and facilities along the trail for their daily needs. Some were being very active, even playing team games in the sand. Given what I was used to along the trail, it was a surreal experience.
Their presence there made riding the bike trail at a fast pace dangerous. Not because I was afraid of being attacked. Although there was a lot of angry chatter and shouting emanating from many of the tents. Locals were using the trail without looking for cyclists, standing across the trail, and storing their belongings on the trail itself. It had the look of establishing territory and discouraging other trail users from being there. And it was working. It was the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. Usually the trail would be crowded with groups of cyclists. But today there were eerily few riders on the trail. And many of them were homeless people wandering down the trail slowly, on the wrong side, etc.
I hope that this is not a long term trend for the river trail. Many communities have worked hard to improve the trail for cyclists and equestrians, adding rest rooms, lighting, landscaping, benches,etc. The trail serves as a transportation corridor. The new transit center in Anaheim, ARTIC, is located adjacent to the bike trial, in an obvious effort to support cyclists for commuting and travel. I later read about the situation to learn what was happening. A quick web search helped me understand the causes. My heart goes out to these people, I hope they can get out of this situation quickly.
Part of my mixed emotions about this are as a cyclist, however. Why is a cycling trail one of the places that the homeless end up going at a time like this? There are other areas: shopping areas, school campuses, wilderness areas, golf courses (like the one along the trail), government facilities (which are being used, too), etc. Their presence is illegal in all of these places, so that is not a reason for using the bike trail. I feel that cyclists are once again being treated as second class citizens and their concerns are less than other groups.
Yes, I know it sounds selfish and I do have a hard time balancing my mixed feelings about the situation. If this is a relatively short term phenomenon, and the homeless population dwindles or is relocated quickly, then it will be one of those one time things. But from the looks of it, with volunteers bringing in supplies and residents coming out in the open to form communities and take over the area, it looks just as likely that the Santa Ana River Trail as a cycling destination will be diminished for a long time, perhaps permanently.