In an effort to address a burgeoning unhoused population and increasing fire risk, the Riverside City Council has approved a ban on camping or sleeping in areas where undeveloped vegetation runs up against homes, including the Santa Ana River bottom.

The ordinance makes it illegal to “sit, lie, sleep, or store, use, maintain, or place any bulky item or personal property” in the so-called wildland-urban interface. Before the 6-1 vote Tuesday night, city officials cited an anticamping ordinance passed last year by the Los Angeles City Council designating certain areas off-limits to encampments; the law has drawn criticism from activists who say it criminalizes homelessness.

Councilmember Clarissa Cervantes was the lone no vote, citing concerns that there will not be enough shelter for everyone living in the river bottom.

Exacerbated by extreme drought, probable “human-caused” fires have ignited in the river bottom over the years, prompting officials to propose the anticamping ordinance. In the last five years, the Riverside Fire Department has responded to 163 calls for vegetation fires in the Santa Ana River bottom, 66% of which were caused by humans, according to a city report.

Riverside has struggled with homelessness for years, allotting $33.5 million of its city budget in 2021-22 to create affordable housing and address the crisis.

In June, the City Council approved a five-year plan to reduce homelessness that includes assembling a “Wildlands Public Safety Engagement Team” comprising the Riverside Police Department, outreach workers from City Net and code enforcement officers to try to engage with people living in the Santa Ana River bottom.

Once shelter and housing are made available, the team will conduct anticamping enforcement and camp clean-up.

Officials said they will abide by a federal court ruling that forbids cities from enforcing prohibitive camping ordinances when alternative housing isn’t available.

The county this year has identified 3,316 homeless people, 59.71% of whom don’t have shelter. As more people have resided in the Santa Ana River bottom and remote canyon areas, fire risk has increased.

During Tuesday’s meeting, officials also highlighted the Riverside County Partnership for the Homeless Outreach Medication and Education program, an alternative criminal sentencing program for those experiencing homelessness or on the verge of homelessness.

In order to qualify for the program, which promotes a treatment-based approach to sentencing, rather than incarceration or fines, the person must be charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor and be evaluated by the court, attorneys and Riverside University Health System-Behavioral Health.

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