ACLU and County in Settlement Talks on Riverbed Homeless Suit

County officials and the American Civil Liberties Union have entered into settlement talks regarding a lawsuit alleging that the county illegally trapped homeless people in the Santa Ana riverbed.

The federal suit, filed late last week by the ACLU of Southern California, alleges that the county fenced in and effectively “imprisoned” at least 75 homeless people who live along the river. The county disputes that claim, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson calling it “dishonest” and “ridiculous.”

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter was slated to decide at a Thursday morning hearing whether to approve the ACLU’s request for a restraining order against the county. But after both sides talked about the case Wednesday, they agreed to cancel the hearing.

“The county and the ACLU sat down and had a discussion today,” county spokeswoman Carrie Braun said Wednesday evening. The two sides, she said, “have not reached an agreement officially, but the county felt like the conversation was progressing and that there wasn’t a need for the hearing tomorrow.”

Brendan Hamme, one of the ACLU's lead attorneys in the case, indicated that the talk was constructive. “We were heartened by today’s discussion and look forward to further discussions with the county,” Hamme said.

The development came the day after county attorneys were slated to get direction from the Board of Supervisors on how to proceed in the case.

Advocates have been protesting the county’s actions to evict people from the riverbed as part of a project to replace a homeless encampment with boulders and sand for public works projects.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU claimed that fencing put up by the county has “not only illegally restricted the liberty of the homeless people living in the encampment, but it has also cut them off from access to food, water, and medical care thus threatening their health and well-being.”

County officials dispute this characterization, saying there have been four “access points” in the fencing for people to enter and exit. And they say the camp needs to be cleared so officials can store sand and boulders to prevent flooding and replenish beaches.

Homeless advocates, meanwhile, say the new fencing requires disabled homeless people to walk up to a mile to get to the nearest exit. And they claim that the public works project is really just a ruse to evict homeless people from the area.

Angry residents showed up to the county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to demand that supervisors stop the evictions until housing options are available. Supervisors didn't respond, other than to scold them for clapping.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.