Santa Ana Riverbed Homeless Encampments
Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampments. Image: YouTube

With a federal judge prodding both sides throughout the day, Orange County officials and homeless advocates worked out the framework of an agreement Tuesday that would clear the Santa Ana riverbed of transients, beginning next Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter turned a preliminary injunction hearing into a workshop among attorneys and municipal leaders to find temporary shelter for the riverbed’s homeless and then move them into affordable housing.

The morning featured Carter peppering attorneys, advocates and county leaders with questions about how a solution could be reached for the riverbed encampment before he had to issue a court order. The afternoon was spent with both sides negotiating in private until they developed the framework of a deal by the end of the day.

Still, Carter, who has a well-earned reputation for his unorthodox courtroom style, will have everyone working well into the night on the language of a deal, with notices going out Wednesday to the riverbed homeless that they will soon have to leave — but with alternatives.

The proposal calls for the county to provide the homeless up to 30 days at a motel to be used as a sort of triage area until more stable housing is found for them, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told City News Service. He said in court as many 400 motel rooms would be made available.

The average rate of the motel rooms is $75 to $125 nightly, Orange County Chief Executive Officer Frank Kim told reporters at a break in the hearing.

Beyond the motel rooms, the county can quickly add 32 beds to its homeless center, which still hasn’t fully opened, in Anaheim. There is also room at the center to erect tents in the parking lot for an additional 60 beds, Do said.

A woman’s shelter in Santa Ana can provide about 100 beds for women fleeing domestic violence for 60 to 90 days, Do said.

There’s also a fleet yard in Orange that can be used to erect a tent to set up 100 beds; and there’s also room near the Orange County Registrar of Voters’ office on Grand Avenue in Santa Ana for more beds.

In all, the county believes it can provide 700 to 800 more beds, Do said.

Carter said he would lead a contingent of parties to the lawsuit for a walk of the riverbed about 6 a.m. Wednesday. He wants notices going out Wednesday to the homeless that the riverbed will be cleared out by next Tuesday.

“I want to get the notices out now,” Carter said. “They’re going to be given a last chance.”

He said he would monitor the move to reassure the transients that the transition would be done “humanely” and that they will be given alternative shelter.

During the negotiations, Carter, a Marine Corps veteran, huddled with Veterans Administration officials to discuss how to get mental health professionals from the federal government down to the riverbed to help the transients as they move. Carter said he would sign the federal order allowing the VA officials to work on non-federal land, “and I’ll take the heat for it.”

“I am very pleased,” Do told CNS after a break in the hearing.

Carter’s “guidance really helped all parties,” Do added.

The county has set aside $10 million or more for emergency services for the homeless, Do said.

Carter made it clear to the plaintiffs and defendants in the litigation that he was impatient for a solution to the homeless problem along the riverbed, which has presented a variety of problems ranging from environmental hazards to rising crime and an inability of bikers and hikers to use the public trails.

At the outset of the hearing, Carter asked officials to summon Do, who happened to be having a morning meeting with Santa Ana officials to discuss the homeless issue, among other things. Do, coincidentally, said he discussed a plan that could provide space for a temporary shelter, which pleased Carter.

At one point during the hearing, when Supervisor Todd Spitzer proposed a “mothballed” building owned by the Rancho Santiago Community College District at Katella Avenue and Batavia Street as an ideal spot for a permanent housing center for the homeless and complained he can’t get any cooperation from college officials, Carter told him to call someone from the college district on the spot and invite him to the hearing.

A college official later met with Carter. Spitzer told reporters that the vice chancellor of the college district said the district intended to rehab the building and use it for adult education classes.

Carter praised county officials for taking steps to address the homeless problem along the riverbed, but he also admonished them for “chipmunking” $700 million in federal funding for affordable housing and homeless services over the years.

Carter categorized the homeless population and initially sought to discuss each group individually, but the hearing became a free-wheeling laboratory for “positive” suggestions on the issues as he attempted to run roughshod over the typical “adversarial” rhythm of plaintiffs vs. defendants in a courtroom.

Carter said county officials “have the power to move people” out of the riverbed, but he has the authority to make sure it’s done in a “humane” manner guaranteeing the constitutional rights of the transients.

Carter also said he wanted to avoid an endless cycle of citing homeless people for trespassing, which would have them do time in jail since they couldn’t pay the fine, and then they would return to the riverbed. Worse, he said, is that the hundreds along the riverbed would flee to surrounding cities, where they would be cited and arrested there and again be in the “revolving door of citations.”

The plaintiffs, who include several homeless people who live on the riverbed, want Carter to block the county and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange from enforcing anti-camping laws along the riverbed and the surrounding cities until the transients are found somewhere else to go.

Last week, Carter granted a temporary restraining order when county officials made it clear to the plaintiffs who brought the suit that they intended to begin enforcing anti-camping and trespass laws along the riverbed.

Orange County Catholic Worker, the main plaintiff in the lawsuit, argued that county officials have failed for years to provide affordable housing for the area’s needy and that its homeless shelters are overcrowded.

Orange County officials, however, say they have plenty of beds available. The problem, they say, is that many transients have refused outreach services, choosing to live on the streets rather than abide by the rules at shelters, such as abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

–City News Service

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