Squatters at Redlands’ largest homeless encampment face removal – San Bernardino Sun

Jesse Lara sat in the doorway of his decrepit Dodge RV, parked on a vacant lot aside a recently razed orange grove in Redlands, and pondered what his future might hold.

Irvine-based Meritage Homes of California bought the land north of Citrus Valley High School and east of the 210 Freeway in April and is building Bergamot, a 58-acre residential community comprising 317 single-family homes and an 11-acre public sports park.

It brings to a close what is perhaps the largest homeless encampment in Redlands, leaving Lara and the others who remain there wondering what their next move will be.

“Most likely the police are going to say I need to move or I’ll be arrested for trespassing,” Lara, 47, said on a recent morning during an oppressive heat wave. “I feel terrible. I’ll probably wind up going to jail, they’ll take my trailer and I’ll come out with nothing.”

A way of life

Lara is among a cluster of homeless people who remain at the encampment. While he remains parked on the vacant lot, others camp in their vehicles along a dirt access road paralleling the freeway or in makeshift structures of tree branches and logs, tarpaulin and plastic in the ditch below.

Most of them have no interest in abiding by the routines and responsibilities of conventional society and typically shirk homeless services and programs offered by public agencies and nonprofit organizations.

“There’s some of us who can’t work a 9-to-5 job. I don’t like people telling me what to do,” said a 33-year-old man who identified himself as Smiley.

Smiley and his girlfriend Cindy, 35, said they and their two dogs, Rocco and Tyson, have been living at their encampment in the ditch for about three months. They were previously camped in the orange grove before police paid them and other squatters a visit in July, told them the property had been sold and that they had to vacate.

So Smiley and Cindy relocated to the ditch and set up camp. They installed a solar panel wired to car batteries and an inverter box, allowing them to charge their phones and Bluetooth speakers. It even powers lights for night use.

“If I have my music, my phone and my Bluetooth speakers, I’ll be fine,” Smiley said.

Like most of those living at the encampment, with the exception of Lara, most did not want to be named, or would only give their first names or, in Smiley’s case, their nicknames. None would allow photographs.

Caltrans concerns

Unlike the former orange grove, which was situated on private property, the ditch and dirt access road paralleling the freeway is Caltrans’ jurisdiction. Redlands police notified Caltrans of the encampment, city spokesman Carl Baker said.

Smiley and Cindy know their time is limited where they are now staying, noting a Caltrans representative also paid them a visit around the time the orange grove was cleared in July.

“Caltrans said they’d be coming by to clear us all out, but they haven’t come yet,” Smiley said.

Asked where they’d go if they were vacated, Cindy said they’d probably move further up the wash. “There’s really nowhere to go,” she said.

In an email, Caltrans spokesman Eric Dionne said that in situations where people experiencing homelessness are sheltering along the state right of way, Caltrans assesses the encampment site for immediate threats to safety and essential infrastructure. When an encampment is targeted for closure, encampment coordinators work with social service providers on oureach efforts and connecting the homeless with essential services and available housing and shelter options.

Dionne, however, did not respond to questions about whether Caltrans would vacate the encampment, and, if so, when.

Outreach efforts

Baker said that from May 17 to July 13, David Rabindranath, the city’s new homeless services coordinator, police and other agencies visited the encampment and offered services to the homeless, including connecting them to emergency housing and other housing programs. He said several individuals did receive housing and other services, while others moved out of the area on their own.

Rabindranath said the city and its partner agencies have ramped up outreach to the homeless since he was hired in April. “We’ve probafbly made contact with, easily, about 100 to 150. And that’s conservative,” he said.

On two occasions, Rabindranath and Redlands police teamed up with the sheriff’s H.O.P.E. team and representatives from Lighthouse Social Service Centers in Colton, San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health, the Loma Linda VA and Step Up on outreach efforts at homeless encampments citywide.

As a result, at least two homeless people were provided hotel vouchers via the federal Project Roomkey homeless relief program, and two homeless veterans were reconnected with housing programs through Lighthouse and the VA Supportive Housing program, Rabindranath said.

Good Nite shelter

Officials could not yet say whether any of the homeless individuals at the encampment qualify for placement at the former Good Nite Inn on Industrial Park Avenue, which is being converted into a 99-bed shelter serving the Redlands homeless. It is now going by the name Step Up On Redlands, named after the homeless advocacy nonprofit Step Up that will be overseeing operations there.

“We don’t have numbers yet, but we’ve screened quite a few,” Rabindrath said. “Also, we’re trying to build an idea of who’s homeless in Redlands and who’s been homeless the longest.”

He said the city is targeting the chronically homeless —those who have been unhoused for 12 consecutive months or a total of 12 months within a three-year period — for placement at the former motel.

A $30 million state grant made possible the project and program, which is a partnership between the city, Step Up and Los Angeles real estate developer Shangri-La Industries, which is renovating the motel and adding kitchenettes to all rooms, among others things. The city ponied up $3.6 million for program operating costs, to be spread over seven years.

The Step Up shelter program is on track to launch around the end of the year or in early 2023, Rabindranath said.

The invisible

According to the county’s 2022 point-in-time homeless count, Redlands had the sixth highest population of unsheltered homeless individuals, with 98 counted. However, the point-in-time survey reflects only the number of counted homeless, while many more go uncounted, officials say.

Those working directly with the homeless estimate the actual number of unsheltered persons in the city to be in the hundreds.

Many of them prefer to stay invisible, making themselves scarce when the counters come around in January. Many living at the encampment near Citrus Valley High School would fit that bill.

“I have faith that a small number of those folks will reach out for help, but I think the majority of them, they’re going to relocate, and sometimnes that’s a very short distance,” said Rick Ferguson, a member of the Redlands Charitable Resources Coalition and the emergency shelter director at Holy Name of Jesus Church.

Raymond Morehouse, executive director of Inherit the Earth, a Redlands nonprofit advocating for the homeless, doesn’t believe there will be an influx of homeless on city streets if the remaining campers near Citrus Valley High School are vacated.

He believes they will likely stay in close proximity to where they are now and move further into the Santa Ana River wash or set up camp along embankments or behind buildings where the 10 and 210 freeways merge.

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