Neighbors Seek to Reclaim Santiago Park in Santa Ana

Neighbors look to reclaim Santa Ana open space, but homeless people have few options.
Illustration by Pete Ryan

Santiago Park in Santa Ana is a half-wild, sun-dappled strip of green that straddles Santiago Creek from Main Street to the 22 Freeway. The park, with its 1930s stonework and ancient trees along the riverbed, provides a charming refuge from the nearby Orange Crush, one of the busiest freeway interchanges in the nation.

This month, the public is invited to visit the romantic park, spreading out blankets for a special, COVID-19-era Valentine’s bring-your-own picnic. The theme is Winter of Love, with music from the Summer of Love era piped in—think Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones. We finally get to wear our bell-bottoms and tie-dye.

The event is organized by Friends of Santiago Park, a new group of neighborhood activists who want to reclaim the park for their families—to take it back from the transient population that has found a temporary home along the creek banks. The group’s plan is multi-fold, offering activities to draw visitors to the park while creating a program to help the homeless find other accommodations. With proper funding, the group also would like to put temporary security substations and social workers in the park, until the homeless issue abates.

It’s a noble venture if the group bestows a better life under a roof on scores of homeless people. But some of the homeless people tell me they like Santiago Park, too. And they’re not leaving any time soon.

In full disclosure, I’ve always had a soft spot for this park. I trained for the Inca Trail by running its WPA-era steps. I ate lunch beneath its leafy trees when I worked in Santa Ana. My kids rode cardboard sleds down a slippery 30-foot aluminum slide, flush with a steep dirt hill. Our family has planted native species, gone on naturalist hikes, wasted dozens of cans of tennis balls, and learned to shoot a bow and arrow there. We’ve stood on its antique bridges after a storm and marveled at the white-capped river sprung overnight from a dry creek bed.

It is a park that breathes the grace of a former era. Old-timers tell us we should have seen the park in the ’40s and ’50s. The barbecues. The burger shack. The square dances.

I visit the Friends’ outdoor yoga class one Sunday, spread out on a sprawling green lawn between a square of lawn bowling and the tennis courts. The midmorning sun casts a liquid-gold hue on a couple dozen people in sweatpants. Floating on their mats across the lawn, the weekend warriors are all ages, races, body types, etc., which is reflective of the neighborhood.

“With everything going on right now in the world, we need to give ourselves this time for stillness and movement and breath,” says the willowy instructor, Kallie Klug, of Huntington Beach. Om, I’m thinking. I’ve needed this.

I dive into down dog on the grass. David Ball, a sculptor who lives up the street, bicycles away to bring me a yoga mat. While he’s gone, someone doing yoga in the back row tells me to be sure to talk to his wife, Yelena, who is now doing a cat-cow series of poses in the front. She apparently got this whole thing started with a post on Nextdoor.

After class, Yelena Ball tells me that they moved into Park Santiago from South Pasadena in June (2020), taken by the sweet diversity of houses, the caring neighbors, and the splendid park.   

But after taking her first walk through the park, “I was very, very shocked,” she says. “I felt bamboozled.”

She wrote “Santiago Park is a hot mess” on Nextdoor. The response was overwhelming.

“We just want to clean it up,”
she says. “We don’t want to kick out the homeless, but they cannot stay there. … It’s just what (they) bring to the park that concerns us.”

Not far from the yoga group, I find dozens of homeless men bivouacked next to a building, with plywood and cardboard walls and palm thatch roofing. I feel some trepidation, as I am only a few hundred feet from the spot where a homeless man was stabbed to death in March 2020. Three homeless people were arrested for the attack.

“No way, we’re not leaving,” says a man who calls himself Sergio.

He disappears into the palm frond shelter and appears again in a minute with Samuel Mata, 50. Mata, a boat builder, says he is speaking on behalf of the homeless men, who are afraid to be identified. He is not homeless, but he hangs out whenever he can with his homeless friends there. He has heard about the neighbors’ plan to make the homeless people leave.

“I don’t think their plan will work,” he says. “I’ve been in those homeless (shelters), and you know what it’s like? It’s like being in jail.” He says the people in the creek bed have formed their own community. “Nobody wants to be homeless. We have one guy, his wife left him, he started doing drugs, little by little, he feels there’s no hope for him. Well, here, he’s got hope. Here, he says, you are my family.” Mata says the neighbors might be successful in their bid to push folks out, but they will all come back.

Yelena has started holding outdoor neighborhood meetings to make sure that doesn’t happen. Jeff Katz, a highly energetic lawyer who lives to the west in the Floral Park neighborhood, got involved and started planning activities in the park for the general public every weekend. So far, there have been guests from Costa Mesa, Laguna Niguel, and Newport Beach.

Katz grew up in L.A., visiting Griffith Park, and he lived in New York City, where he enjoyed Central Park. He loves a good urban park and wants everyone to be able to use Santiago Park safely. “But you have addicts shooting up, you’ve got illegal drug sales, you’ve got chop shops under the 5 and 22,” he tells me. Neighbors are scared and have stopped using the park. “At a very minimum, you don’t use your park, you lose it,” he says.

In the past few months, the group has held regular yoga classes and lawn bowling, as well as weekly bicycle rides. A screening of “Field of Dreams” will take place this spring on the baseball diamond. There are concerts planned. They hope to stage a small tennis tournament during Wimbledon with strawberries and cream.

“Do I think using it on a Sunday for an hour will address the problem? No,” Katz says. “So I’ve also created a coalition of all the significant stakeholders. It starts with the neighbors and the neighborhood associations. We’ve expanded it to the commercial owners on the border. The restaurants. Then I started reaching out to homeless activists.” 

The group hopes to convince the city to put up two substations, either staffed with actual police or private police and, ideally, someone in the role of social worker.

I wonder if this might be a pie-in-the sky idea with all the reduced government revenue. But if anyone can do it, Katz has the resumé. For five years, he has volunteered as a case manager for Second Chance Orange County. He has helped homeless clients maintain sobriety, get jobs, and find housing.

It’s a tough issue, and I know it’s not just happening at Santiago Park. Families deserve a safe park, and yet should we not all be committed to making sure everyone has a roof over their head?

Orange County parks have become an extension of our backyard. The parks have saved us. So far, I applaud these neighbors for reclaiming their beautiful park, especially if they are able to help some homeless people, in a time when so many have lost so much.

Find Out More!
Winter of Love takes place Feb. 13 at noon in Santiago Park. For information, go to lovesantiagopark@gmail.com.

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