ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Mohammed Aly does not see any reason why he shouldn’t try to ease the lives of Orange County’s homeless. But the authorities — and many of his neighbors — disagree.
Aly, a 28-year-old lawyer and activist, has been arrested three times as he campaigned on behalf of street people. Recently, he was denied permission to install portable toilets on a dried-up riverbed, site of an encampment of roughly 400 homeless.
“Put yourself in their position: Would you want a toilet, or would you not want a toilet?” he asked. “It is a question of basic empathy.”
But his detractors — engaged in a dispute that rages up and down America’s West Coast, as the region struggles to cope with a rising tide of homelessness — say Aly and other do-gooders are doing more harm than good. However well-meaning, critics say, those who provide the homeless with tents and tarps, showers and toilets, hot meals and pet food, are enabling them to remain unsheltered.
And not coincidentally, they note, nuisances of homelessness like trash and unsanitary conditions fester and aberrant behavior continues.
In California, the San Diego County community of El Cajon passed a measure that curtails feeding the homeless, citing health concerns. In Los Angeles, city officials have closed and re-opened restrooms for those on Skid Row amid similar controversies.
The issue is hotly debated across Orange County, a cluster of suburbs and small cities known more for surf culture and Disneyland than its legions of poor.
In the tony seaside enclave of Dana Point, neighbors fear a nightly meal is drawing homeless to a popular state beach where teens play beach volleyball and families picnic and surf.
On the dusty riverbed 30 miles (48 kilometers) north, a van furnished with shower stalls parks alongside the homeless encampment; those living in the string of tattered tents add their names to a list of dozens waiting to bathe. While the mobile unit aims to help those living on the trash-strewn strip, neighbors worry the 2-mile-long (3-kilometer-long) encampment is becoming more entrenched in an area where they once jogged and biked.
“If the ultimate goal is to get them under a roof, why on Earth are you giving all the advantages you would have under a roof on the riverbed?” asked Shaun Dove, a 46-year-old soon-to-be retired policeman from Anaheim, who lives less than a mile from the riverbed in a palm-tree lined neighborhood of three-bedroom homes.
“There’s no doubt that giving them stuff there prevents them from a desire to move.”