Growing up in Anaheim, Robert Hanley knew Disneyland well. His high school band played there. “And the funny thing is, when I got into the workforce as a younger gentleman, I helped build California Adventure,” he said, referring to a theme park inside the main resort. “I did electrical.”
Hanley even has a Tinker Bell tattoo on his right bicep. But he hasn’t been back to Disneyland recently.
He is one of about 800 people living on the streets on any given night in Anaheim, a Los Angeles-area city that boasts over 20 million annual visitors and billions of dollars in tourism revenue.
Amid a regional homelessness crisis, Anaheim is taking a controversial course of action over its increasingly visible population. Over the past couple of months, the city has been removing benches from bus stops along its main tourist thoroughfare, abutting Disneyland.
“We had folks that basically were staying at these shelters,” Mike Lyster, an Anaheim city spokesperson, said.
Lyster said the decision to remove the benches had nothing to do with Disneyland, or a concern that tourists coming out of the park would be put off by seeing people sleeping at the bus stops.
“It’s very easy for folks to say: ‘Oh, it has to do with Disneyland’. We actually never heard from Disneyland on this,” Lyster said. “This actually has nothing to do with that. And it has everything to do with the bus riders who use this bus stop.”
A Disneyland spokesperson declined repeated requests for comment. But some Anaheim residents were skeptical.
“I think that that’s bullshit,” said Stephenie Saint Vincent, who is one of the several hundred people who live in tents in the river bed at the edge of town. She has a disability, and was sitting on her walker at the bus stop.
“I think they should put the seats back, because it’s not fair to everybody else.”
Homelessness numbers have been soaring in southern California – in neighboring Los Angeles County they have reached a record high, according to this year’s homeless count. In Anaheim, a steady stream of tourists sporting Mickey Mouse ears and Disneyland pins intermingles with a slower trickle of people who are homeless, with varying degrees of visibility.
Don Zimmerman, a 57-year-old Floridian who was visiting Disneyland for the first time, said he didn’t understand the city’s logic. “If you have a homeless population, you need to deal with the homeless population and fix that problem,” he said “Taking the benches away isn’t very nice.”
The benches are slowly being replaced with concrete “stools” designed for people to sit on while they wait for the bus, but which “really aren’t conducive to somebody sitting there for hours at a time” and would be impossible to sleep on, Lyster said.
Even so, he took umbrage at the notion that removing the bus benches was an anti-homeless initiative, and said Anaheim was working hard to address homelessness.
“Nobody should have to live at a bus bench. We’re not just going to throw up our hands and say: ‘We’re just going to let people live here’ – we can actually do better than that,” he said. “And anybody who was sleeping here, we ask them to come see us. We can find them a shelter.”
But it’s not clear that Anaheim could. There are shelters in neighboring cities – “we don’t operate in a bubble”, Lyster said – but in Anaheim, there’s just one year-round shelter, which opened this year, and its hundred beds are already occupied.
The lack of homeless housing available in Anaheim belies the city’s claims about its efforts to help the homeless, an advocate, Mohammed Aly, said.