People of the Riverbed

Mariah Castaneda for Voice of OC

Denise Lindstrom Le Blanc, who has been homeless for two years, now calls the bed of the Santa Ana River home.


By MARIAH CASTANEDA September 2, 2016

It is Orange County’s other homeless encampment.

While the ever-growing population at the Santa Ana Civic Center is the most visible example of the county’s failure to adequately address homelessness, as many as 500 people now live in the bed of the Santa Ana River.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has been sounding alarm bells for more than a year; and last winter, with the threat of El Nino-fueled storms looming, county officials pledged more resources to alleviate the situation.

Yet the only noticeable change along “Skid River,” as it was characterized to The Orange County Register, has been the increase in the number of people who live there.

Voice of OC intern Mariah Castaneda recently brought her camera to the riverbed to get a glimpse of what life is like for those who call it home. Here is what she found:

Emmanuel Sanchez is one of many residents who collect water from the river. He claims he won’t drink the water but uses it to bathe, cook and clean. Sanchez has lived in the same spot for three years, and during that time has watched the riverbed neighborhood swell.

Michelle Melgar and her boyfriend Victor Hins have spent the last three summers illegally camping in the riverbed. Melgar reports that more people are moving to the community “in the sand. It used to be that Melgar knew everyone that lived near her. But lately she says it’s getting harder to keep up with the new faces.

Melgar, a mother of two, had once been a secretary for an elementary school and church. Hins is an ordained minister who once had a painting and construction clean-up business.

Both Melgar and Hins claim to have arrest warrants out against them for “illegally camping,” which is the official violation police charge homeless people with when they sleep outside. Melgar says she’s been jailed in the past for illegally camping.

“This isn’t camping,” Melgar said with a small laugh. “I have camped with my kids, this isn’t it. This is hard”

Under the tunnel, there is a small neighborhood of makeshift homes. A clothesline hangs washed undergarments and dwelling actually has a faux grass lawn Rows of stones and sand mounds act as fences between neighbors.

Denise Lindstrom Le Blanc has been homeless for two years. She suffered a stroke in February and is now bound to a wheelchair and needs assistance moving from her couch to the chair.

Others in the riverbed community come to her aid — one woman acts as a caretaker, and another looks out for her safety. The Laguna Hills native is currently applying for federal Section 8 housing and hopes to have a home soon.