Activism: Orange County Eliminate Homelessness

Orange County officials plan to clear out the Santa Ana River homeless encampment next week and supply as many as 400 motel vouchers to displaced inhabitants under a tentative agreement reached Tuesday, Feb. 13, in a federal lawsuit that had challenged recent efforts to evict people from the populous tent city. The deal was hammered out during an unorthodox daylong hearing in which U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter wielded his judicial powers to entice officials from the county and local cities to negotiate with attorneys for seven homeless people who alleged their civil rights were being violated during the eviction efforts. Carter’s federal courtroom was packed with scores of onlookers, including dozens of public officials and homeless advocates, with the large crowd spilling over into two overflow rooms. Under the proposed agreement, the county will begin clearing out the encampments on Feb. 20, dismantling them section by section over a course of three to six days. Notices will be posted Wednesday, warning inhabitants of the planned action. People who accept vouchers will be allowed to stay in motels for 30 days. County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told the court that the county also will commit to adding 32 beds for homeless people at the county’s Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter and another 60 beds on the facility’s parking lot in the near future; 100 beds at the WISEPlace shelter for women in Santa Ana; 100 beds or tents at a facility in Orange; and 120 beds or tents on land the county owns near the Orange County Registrar of Voters. Some of the people given vouchers, and temporarily housed in motels, could later move to the more permanent living facilities. Attorneys on both sides were expected to remain in Carter’s courtroom late into the night drafting up a formal written document to seal the agreement. Carter was expected to continue the hearing Wednesday, with both sides present. Tuesday’s tentative deal followed a hearing that marked a pivotal legal moment in Orange County’s rancorous debate over how to balance the civil rights of homeless people with local government officials’ control over their communities. At issue in the lawsuit, filed Jan. 29, was whether homeless people living in the encampments should be allowed to remain there and how police must treat the homeless if they ended up being displaced to city streets. The lawsuit also sought to answer the question of whether the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange can enforce anti-camping ordinances that advocates say criminalize homeless people who have nowhere else to sleep or keep their belongings. The lawsuit contended homeless people likely would end up in those communities if they can’t remain at the riverbed. Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who represented the homeless plaintiffs, expressed skepticism that the county could meet its end of the agreement by locating enough motel rooms for those displaced from the riverbed. She also worried that this was a short-term approach that doesn’t address a larger need. “I don’t know if the county can find long-term housing” for homeless people, Weitzman said. But Do said he doesn’t expect all 400 vouchers, which would be used to pay for motel rooms that go for between $75 and $125 a night, will be needed. For weeks, county officials have insisted that there are vacancies at local shelters and that a sizeable portion of the riverbed population doesn’t want help. Asked why it took a federal lawsuit for the county to offer up these additional resources, Do responded that the county struck the agreement mostly to address concerns from lawyers representing the homeless that local shelters were at capacity. Do said the county would provide supportive services to the people in motels. He also committed to keeping the new emergency shelters open “as long as necessary” to fix the homelessness problem. The Board of Supervisors will need to hold a special session within a day or two to approve the additional motel vouchers and shelter beds. Carter had called Tuesday’s hearing to consider whether to grant a preliminary injunction that could have effectively prevented the county from clearing the riverbed encampment and barred cities from enforcing anti-camping laws until the case was resolved. The judge already had issued a temporary restraining order on Feb. 6, freezing the county’s eviction of riverbed inhabitants two weeks into the process. But what was expected to be a hearing about the constitutional rights of homeless people quickly morphed into a broader reckoning of how to get an estimated 500 to 1,000 homeless people off the riverbed and into an emergency shelter in a matter of days. “We’re going to solve it right here,” Carter said from his bench. “I’m tired of the paperwork ‘we can’t get it done’ nonsense,” the judge said. While acknowledging homelessness is a regional issue, Carter excoriated the county’s failures to adequately address the problem. He pointed to public documents and statements by supervisors that suggested the county had “hundreds of millions of dollars” earmarked for homelessness that had gone unspent. County officials said those documents weren’t an accurate representation of the resources available but acknowledged they could do more. The judge criticized cities for citing homeless people under anti-camping and anti-loitering laws without addressing the root causes of homelessness, saying it produced a “revolving door” that churned people from the streets to the courts and back without solving anything. And Carter bluntly demanded an accounting of what public and private resources are available to help the homeless – requesting the county and cities convene during a break from the hearing to develop a plan for a short-term fix. Though Carter has acknowledged his limited powers to prevent the county from eventually removing people from the riverbed, he wielded the threat of an extended injunction that could have kept the large homeless encampment intact for the foreseeable future. But he said that a judicial fix to the problem would be limited and might just prolong the issue. County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said that while he was concerned about the “potential overreach” of judicial activism in this case, he credited Carter for forcing the county and the cities to reach some agreement in less than a day. “While it’s unorthodox, it’s really outstanding because it’s the missing element needed in this county – an entity that has significant leverage to force people to put their cards on the table,” Spitzer said. “It’s a long overdue exercise in this county.” Carter also arranged for mental health professionals from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Long Beach to join sheriff’s deputies while they begin clearing the encampment on Tuesday to tend to the needs of homeless veterans. The judge said he plans to walk the riverbed early Wednesday morning with the attorneys to observe conditions and begin the process of telling people they’d soon have to leave. But he wants to make sure people know there will be shelter options for them. “Some will take advantage and some won’t,” Carter said. “Some who want to wander will wander. Some who want to leave will leave.”

via Orange County to clear out riverbed homeless encampment, provide 400 motel vouchers for displaced people, under proposed agreement — SCNG


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