The Court Case That Forced OC To Stop Ignoring Its Homeless
After seven months of prodding, Orange County seems poised to significantly increase its capacity to shelter the homeless, and thereby, rid itself of a lawsuit that has consumed the attention of local officials and residents.
U.S. District Judge David Carter indicated last week that he was prepared to accept settlements between advocates for the homeless and the county and several O.C. cities.
The imminent resolution of at least some aspects of the case comes after officials from the cities of Anaheim and Santa Ana, and the county, told Judge Carter about plans to add 400 new shelters beds by the end of the year and several hundred more over the next few years.
Officials also announced intentions to open at least three additional shelters, one in Costa Mesa and two more at unnamed locations in north Orange County. Lawyers for the homeless said they were satisfied with the progress and hoped to finalize settlements in the coming weeks.
At the same time, however, lawyers plan to bring cities in south Orange County into the lawsuit in hopes of forcing them to open additional shelter space in their region.
Here's what you need to know about how the riverbed encampment was cleared, and what the county is doing now to address homelessness.
WHAT COUNTRY IS THIS?
I remember the first time I laid eyes on the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment. I had just moved to Orange County, in late 2016, from a slum-ringed, Latin American capital.
At first, Orange County's quality-of-life spectrum seemed to start at tidy apartment complexes and end in eight-digit, oceanfront estates (a recent search of Realtor.com turned up a home in San Clemente for $63.5 million).
Then I crossed the Santa Ana River flood control channel one day on the 57 freeway and O.C.'s massive "Skid River" tent city came into view. I was immediately reminded of a similar encampment I'd seen years ago when crossing into Tijuana from San Diego.
At its peak, just before the county cleared the Santa Ana riverbed encampment out completely in February, an estimated 800 to 1,500 people considered it home. It was divided up into something like neighborhoods: there was a large cluster of tents that butted up against the fence around Angel Stadium, for example, and another on the other side of the river, in a grassy, secluded area just south of some railroad tracks.
When I first toured the encampment, in the spring of 2017, I found that it had its own, sizable quality-of-life spread. Some camps seemed more like junk piles while others had neatly swept perimeters and extra comforts like full-sized couches, makeshift showers and electricity powered by solar panels.
As of February, it's all gone. The people who used to live there have melded back into other realms of society. Some have found housing and jobs, others have gotten the mental health care they desperately needed; some have simply pitched their tent elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Judge Carter, who has overseen several lawsuits filed on behalf of O.C.'s homeless, has used his position to force local officials to get serious, and speedy, about addressing the county's severe lack of shelters and supportive housing.
THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF SKID RIVER
In January, Orange County officials announced that they would begin clearing out the main homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River, an area owned by the county but flanked by the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Santa Ana. "River" is a nostalgic term; it's actually a concrete-lined, flood control channel.
Homeless people have long made camp under bridges here and in the back corners of green space lining the bike path that parallels the channel. But the camp grew dramatically in recent years. Law enforcement sweeps of smaller encampments led to an increasing concentration of tents here, in plain view of several major freeways.
Some people, most notably Judge Carter, also say police or other employees from cities around Orange County had developed a habit of picking homeless people up from streets and parks and "dumping" them at the riverbed.
Plus, O.C.'s homeless population simply grew in recent years — to around 4,800 people, an estimated increase of 13 percent between 2013 and 2017, according to the 2017 Point-In-Time homeless count. The number of homeless people sleeping outside, rather than in a shelter, rose 54 percent to an estimated 2,600 during that time period.
That may not sound like a lot of people compared to L.A. County, where the homeless population is estimated at more than 53,000. But according to the federal government, Orange County has the second biggest homeless population in the U.S. among cities and counties of its size (the first is Honolulu).
In early 2017, the county decided to start taking back the flood control channel. It first fenced off a section on the east side of the channel and warned campers there that they had a limited time to move before county officials would clear the area in order to store rocks and sand for flood control.
Advocates for the homeless sued. One claim, filed by the ACLU, argued that the county had fenced in homeless people, including some who were disabled, leaving them trapped and endangering their lives.
The other, filed by the fledgling Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, argued that the county was illegally trashing people's private property without giving them prior notice or, in the event that the property had been seized, a way to retrieve it.
Both suits were settled, and though homeless people had to move from some areas, they were allowed to stay along a roughly two-mile stretch of the river behind Angel Stadium. The area cleaned up a bit, as the county agreed to collect trash and set out bins for hypodermic needles.
But county and leaders of surrounding cities balked at providing portable bathrooms, despite an impassioned campaign mounted by local activists. The only nearby public bathrooms, at a park next to the Santa Ana River bike trail, were locked at night and more than a mile away for some riverbed residents.
The county also launched a six-month, $750,000 pilot program aimed at getting homeless riverbed dwellers into permanent housing.
"We cannot allow the riverbed to become Orange County's Skid Row," County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said during a meeting when the program was announced.
At the same time, the county beefed up law enforcement patrols along the riverbed.
In November 2017, workers cleared out another encampment, with an estimated 100 people, along the flood control channel bordering Fountain Valley.
Then, in December, county officials began hinting that a complete clearing of encampments along the riverbed was imminent. It didn't take long: in January they gave official notice, and were promptly slapped with another lawsuit. And then another.
HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE TRESPASSING ON PUBLIC PROPERTY. WHAT RIGHTS DO THEY HAVE?
The principal lawsuit filed this year over the riverbed clearing claimed that local laws against loitering and trespassing, combined with the lack of emergency shelter space in O.C., made it impossible for many of the riverbed homeless to exist without breaking the law. That violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protecting people against "cruel and unusual punishment," the suit claimed.
The complaint, again filed by the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center and homeless rights attorney Carol Sobel on behalf of riverbed campers, relies heavily in its arguments on legal precedent set by the 2006 case Jones v. City of Los Angeles. In that case, Sobel argued successfully before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that L.A.'s ordinance prohibiting people from sitting, lying or sleeping on the street combined with the city's lack of shelter beds made it impossible for homeless people not to break the law.
The Jones ruling held that L.A. can't enforce its anti-loitering ordinance (municipal code section 41.18(d), for city governance geeks) "so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds."
Just recently, the Jones precedent was upheld, some say even strengthened, by another Ninth Circuit case involving a homeless man in Boise, Idaho. The three justices decided unanimously in favor of the homeless plaintiff in that case, Martin v. Boise.
"The panel held that, as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter," the opinion reads.
Judge Carter recently said about the Martin decision: "That's the law of the land now."
The second lawsuit this year over the riverbed clearing was filed on behalf of homeless plaintiffs by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. That complaint argued the county was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when it threatened to evict disabled riverbed dwellers but failed to offer them disability-appropriate alternatives.
One alleged example of this in the complaint was county workers' insistence that a homeless woman who suffered from severe depression and anxiety as a result of a lifetime of abuse, and who had lived at the riverbed for 14 years, had no option but to move to the county's 400-bed, co-ed homeless shelter, The Courtyard.
Lawyers for the woman and other homeless plaintiffs argued that they shouldn't be removed from the riverbed until the county could reasonably accommodate their disabilities with appropriate housing options.
The two lawsuits were combined and assigned to Judge Carter, who has used them to pressure local leaders into launching a massive effort to end chronic homelessness in Orange County.
HOW O.C.'S HOMELESS ENDED UP IN MOTELS ON THE COUNTY DIME
On Feb. 13, the first hearing before Judge Carter took place. But really, more than a court hearing, it was an attempt to triage a situation that seemed to finally have been deemed an emergency.
The judge grilled county officials and homeless service providers about their ability and willingness to find resources to house "the riverbed folks."
The judge had one particularly illuminating exchange with Wendy Seiden, who runs the Family Protection Clinic at Chapman University School of Law. She said there were four O.C. shelters that house women victims of domestic abuse. If a victim leaves a shelter and goes back to her abuser, she's not allowed back in the shelter because the abuser will likely know how to find her.
Most domestic violence victims leave their abuser six or seven times before separating permanently. By the time they've left the sixth or seventh shelter, "there may not be a place left for them," Seiden said.
Enter the riverbed. More than one-third of 320 homeless people surveyed in Anaheim's portion of the riverbed in 2017 said they had experienced domestic violence.
Besides that, two things became clear during the hearing. One, the county wasn't spending as much to address homelessness as Judge Carter and homeless advocates think it should have been. And two, even when it had tried to spend money on housing solutions, there simply wasn't enough low-income and supportive housing available. (The "supportive" in supportive housing refers to accompanying services including mental health and substance abuse counseling, childcare and job training.)
Halfway through that February hearing, County Supervisor Andrew Do offered up a concession: the county would give 30-day motel vouchers to homeless people living at the riverbed. During that time, outreach workers would assess the health and housing needs of each individual and connect them with long-term help.
The lawyers representing the homeless took the deal and moving day was scheduled for the following week.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HOMELESS PEOPLE GIVEN MOTEL ROOMS?
According to county figures, 697 homeless people were put up in motels for a month under the program and an additional 35 were placed in some type of shelter or housing. No one knows exactly how many people were living along the riverbed before it was cleared, but Judge Carter has said he thinks the camp population was close to 1,500.
If that's accurate, it means more than half of the homeless people living there packed up and moved elsewhere.
Still, the mass movement of homeless people from the street indoors and into the county's care appears to be unprecedented, at least in the U.S. Homeless encampments are cleared out all the time, but the evicted residents aren't typically given motel vouchers.
Plus, the eviction was carried out without a single arrest or violent confrontation between homeless residents and law enforcement, an accomplishment that Judge Carter has repeatedly praised.
During their month in motels, around 600 homeless people were assessed by county social workers to determine their needs for housing and services, such as substance abuse treatment and mental and physical health care.
According to county figures, 70 people were evicted from motels before they could be assessed, while others left the motels on their own.
At the end of the month-long motel stays, about half were successfully moved into shelters or other housing with services. Around 200 others, according to the county, declined services or didn't show up to accept them.
Lawyers for the homeless dispute some of those numbers and say some of the services offered to homeless individuals were inadequate or inappropriate.
At this point, the county is no longer tracking what happened to those who were in the motel program, so we may never know how successful it was in getting homeless people housed.
It was successful, however, in clearing the Santa Ana riverbed of homeless encampments, at least in central O.C. The area has been cleaned up and fenced off. Locking gates now provide access to the Santa Ana River bike trail only during daylight hours.
Along the way, Judge Carter also ordered officials to clear out the large encampment that for years had taken up an entire plaza in the Santa Ana Civic Center. That area is also now fenced off. Some of the former campers there have been housed while others have moved their tents elsewhere.
DOES THE COUNTY HAVE A LONG-TERM PLAN FOR HOUSING THE HOMELESS?
Yes and no. O.C. currently lacks enough emergency shelter space to house people who fall into homelessness. But there are more shelters in the works.
In 2018, the county tallied 1,774 emergency shelter beds and 1,147 transitional (short-term) beds. That's close to one bed for every two homeless people.
Judge Carter has used this and other data to pressure O.C. cities and the county: Find more shelter space, he's said on numerous occasions, or else risk not being able to remove homeless people from public parks and sidewalks, as LA can't under the Jones settlement.
In March, the County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of erecting emergency tent shelters in Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach, but backtracked after angry protests from residents in those cities and threats of lawsuits from city leaders.
Since then, however, some cities have started to step up. At a Sept. 7 court hearing, representatives from Anaheim and Santa Ana said they planned to have a total of 400 new shelter beds ready by year's end, and more than double that number within a few years.
Two other shelters with 100 beds each are in the works at yet-unnamed locations in north Orange County, local officials told Judge Carter. And Costa Mesa has pledged to create 50 new shelter beds there.
Judge Carter has said he wanted to keep the locations initially private because of the "sensitivity" of the issue. Presumably, he's referring to a potential backlash from neighboring residents and businesses. But housing experts also say sellers may raise the asking price or seek higher bids if exact locations become public too early in the purchasing process.
Thanks to the promise of new shelters, lawyers for the homeless say they plan to settle with most O.C. cities, and the county, within a few weeks.
WHAT ABOUT SOUTH ORANGE COUNTY? AREN'T THERE HOMELESS PEOPLE THERE?
Yes. Hundreds of people experiencing homelessness live in Dana Point, Irvine, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and other nearby cities. Judge Carter has repeatedly warned the southern part of the county that they face further litigation if they don't increase shelter space.
As of last Friday, litigation is imminent. Lawyers for the homeless said they would be amending their original complaint in the riverbed case to add south O.C. cities as defendants.
The next few months will tell whether they'll battle it out in court or agree to open new shelters, despite a potential backlash from local voters in an election season.
Judge Carter says he won't tolerate delays.
"We're not going to work on an election cycle," he said in court. "Constitutional issues don't work on an election cycle."
SHELTERS ARE BAND-AIDS. WHAT'S THE LONG-TERM PLAN
The county recently unveiled a master plan for harnessing public and private funds to develop 2,700 new units of permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness in O.C. A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday would create a housing trust to help build those units.
If all this comes together, the 74-year-old Carter, if he ever retires, could hang up his gavel knowing he orchestrated a mass effort to improve the lives of homeless people. It likely wouldn't have happened without him.
Updated Sep. 12 to indicate the governor had signed a bill to create a housing trust.
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