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Santa Ana River fire: A reminder of work to be done among city’s homeless

Plumes of yellowed smoke rose up and out of Riverside over the weekend after 14 acres in Ward 1 burned when a bonfire in a homeless encampment grew out of control.

Riverside Fire Department battled the flames and waited to make certain they were extinguished from Thursday until Sunday morning. Its origin was a pile of debris collected and piled at downtown’s Fairmount Park, Boy Scout Camp near Mission Boulevard. Councilmember Erin Edwards (Ward 1) said anyone whose house is located around the river bottom should report any fire to emergency services right away, regardless of its size.

Edwards also chairs the city’s Housing & Homelessness Committee where she recently proposed a Five-Year Plan to Reduce Homelessness. The committee will present the plan’s proposed objectives in a special City Council meeting on September 30, which is intended for community input on how to address the issues of public safety and homelessness.

She proposed a different plan related to Riverside’s portion of the Santa Ana River bottom in December 2020, which was not supported.

“It has been challenging to find support for work in the river bottom because it’s a complex, multi-jurisdictional area where the hardest-to-reach people have been living and camping for many years,” Edwards said.

She described the river bottom as not only an issue of public safety but one of human rights, climate and quality of life. The Santa Ana River and those living there are not only responsibilities of Riverside alone, but of three counties and 17 cities.

Edwards said she has hope when she sees the collaborative effort taking place after years of those turning a blind eye to the river bottom residents.

“Everyone wants to find a way forward. I can’t stress enough how important this is,” she said. “That’s where the River Bottom Homeless Outreach Plan stemmed from. You see Riverside, Corona, Norco, Jurupa Valley all stepping up.”

She said the community should hold elected officials accountable to take action throughout the region as well as engage with the solutions themselves by joining conversations like those held at Housing & Homelessness Committee meetings.

“There is no perfect solution,” she said. “We have to be willing to start somewhere, even if it only tackles one piece of the problem to start.”