Drive up and down the streets in the little town of Cabazon visitors will likely discover, popping up between the sage brush and sand dunes, are motorhomes dotting the desert landscape.
Throughout many parts of the town in this unincorporated area of Riverside County, homeless men and women are parking their recreational vehicles on any open piece of land they can find as they seek a temporary place of permanence.
But property owners are taking exception to them, many referring to the homeless as squatters.
Longtime resident James Brock who has lived in Cabazon for nearly 23 years has noticed a significant uptick in squatters over the last three years.
The squatters that have set up residence, usually do so on undeveloped land with no utilities installed on the property.
“It is extremely unsanitary. No water. No electricity. They don’t have septic or anything,” says Brock who lives in the southeast part of Cabazon. “They are a health concern.”
During a recent Municipal Advisory Council meeting in Cabazon, homeowners were instructed to report the problem on the non-emergency line for the Sheriff’s Department and then make an online complaint with the county code enforcement department.
Reaching Riverside County Code Enforcement, which covers Cabazon and enforces municipal codes regulating living conditions, often times proves to be difficult.
According to county code enforcement, there is only one code enforcement officer assigned to cover an area spanning from Calimesa to Whitewater.
It may take him several hours, often times days, before he is able to respond to a complaint made by residents concerning the homeless RV encampments.
The problem with that, though, is code enforcement’s “involvement is only related to land use violations,” according to officials.
Specifically, they would only cite for illegal dumping and abandoned vehicles, and have no jurisdiction in removing squatters and trespassers.
“The Sheriff’s Department is responsible for enforcing trespassing on private property,” says Brooke Federico, public information officer of Riverside County. “Code Enforcement doesn’t enforce trespassing.”
One of those who have taken up residence in Cabazon while living in a recreational vehicle is Jesse Kennedy.
He has set up a homestead in a vacant field on Bonita Street, which houses another motorhome that has two residents, and an abandoned trailer.
Kennedy has been there for nearly two months.
“I’m stuck,” he says lifting up his arms in despair.
He lost his truck in an accident and has been unable to pull his trailer ever since.
“This isn’t the way it is supposed to be,” he says.
He is trying to sell everything he has in order to get a truck and move his stuff.
The land that he is on is in the middle of a residentially zoned neighborhood.
Many who are living in their motorhomes have also taken up residence on similar sites that have no owner on record.
Just west of the Arrowhead bottling plant in a vacant lot of land that stretches for acres, several motorhomes are parked with a huge mound of garbage piled up right next to the campers.
Locals who are familiar with the site disdainfully refer to it as “Campland.”
Nobody, though, is sure how many people live there.
Getting the squatters removed from the land would be no simple feat.
If the land is owned, once a squatter moves onto the property that person is considered a resident; to remove them requires a time-consuming eviction process by the property’s owner.
That could be a lengthy process.
According to the Eviction Center, a business that helps property owners with the process of removing tenants, it could take months to have someone evicted.
“The average eviction in the Banning court is 30 to 45 days,” says Brenda Barajas, who runs the office in Beaumont.
If the eviction is contested, it could take up to 60 days to finalize the removal of the tenant, Barajas added.
However, some owners who do not live on or near their land may not even know there are squatters living on the property.
Barajas says there may have to be a title search to find the owners and let them know about the situation on their land.
If the property is not privately owned, the county would be the responsible party and it would have to take legal action to have the squatters removed.
Attorney Shawn Patterson of the law firm McClellan, Wilson and Patterson in Banning, says that if a person is able to live on the land for five years and pay all of the property taxes assessed on the property during that time, it would become theirs.
In California it is called adverse possession.
“Proving they paid the taxes, that is the difficult part,” Patterson says.
Even if they did manage to possess the land for five years and pay the taxes, the residents of Cabazon don’t like what the squatters bring in the meantime.
“In most cases they are not the greatest element cruising up and down our streets,” Brock says. “The crime rate goes up when they are around.”
His daughter’s home has been broken into several times by a squatter who parked in the empty lot next to her home.
She has since gotten a large dog to protect her property.
Not only is there an issue with the crime rate, along with the transient population comes an unprecedented amount of garbage.
Mounds of waste accompany these modern-day homesteaders despite having a regular trash and bulk item pick-up provided by Perris-based CR&R Environmental Services.
“The biggest thing is the trash they leave everywhere,” Brock says. “There is a pile of trash that the rest of the neighborhood has to look at.”
Brock adds, “We don’t have time to clean up everyone else’s stuff up.”
County Code Enforcement does help with removal of rubbish from areas.
According to Federico, “Code Enforcement does play a role in supporting the cleanup of properties, including accumulated rubbish and abandoned vehicles.”
The county also helps those in transient situations like homeless and squatters.
Over the course of the removal process of homeless or squatters from a particular property, there are several offers extended to them for temporary housing and other services that would help them get into permanent living situations.
Regardless of whether they take the help or not, Code Enforcement will clear the property and bring it into compliance with local, state and federal regulations.
Cabazon residents have watched this process happen time and again across their community.
“It is not fair to the property owners,” a frustrated Brock says. “It is just a bad thing.”
Staff Writer Marc Hargett may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org , or by calling (951) 849-4586 x117.