ACLU Threatens Suit Over County’s Actions Toward Riverbed Homeless

As county officials move to push homeless people from an encampment next to the Santa Ana River, the American Civil Liberties Union has jumped into the fray with threats of legal action.

In a letter to county officials Wednesday night, the ACLU said the county has “essentially imprisoned” homeless people at the encampment by erecting a six-foot tall fence around them earlier this week with no exits.

“This situation cannot stand,” wrote ACLU of Southern California attorneys Brendan Hamme and Peter Eliasberg.

“The health and safety of the homeless people trapped in the riverbed – particularly elderly individuals and those with disabilities or significant medical conditions – is at serious risk because they are being denied access to food, water and medical services.” they added.

In one case, the attorneys say someone with epilepsy “had a seizure earlier today and emergency personnel were stymied in their efforts to render aid because of the fencing.”

And homeless people who were outside the fencing when it was erected were blocked from retrieving their property, according to the attorneys.

“We understand that garbage trucks have been on site disposing of persons’ belongings with no clear way of ascertaining abandoned property or trash from property people intend to keep and with no clear instructions on how individuals can retrieve their property,” the letter stated. “These actions violate basic notions of human dignity and fundamental constitutional rights, exposing the County to considerable liability.”

The letter went on to demand that the county either immediately remove the fencing or create gateways so people “can enter and exit to remove their property, access food, water, and restrooms, and obtain medical care.” And they insisted that law enforcement not “interfere with nor harass people” who are doing so.

If the county doesn’t immediately follow through, they attorneys wrote, they “will have no choice but to file a lawsuit” seeking a court order forcing the county to comply.

(Click here to read the letter.)

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson called the claims “ridiculous.”

“To say that people are locked in a fence and imprisoned,” he said during a special supervisors meeting Thursday, is “just dishonest.”

“No one was involuntarily surrounded by this fence they couldn’t overcome,” he said.

County spokeswoman Carrie Braun also said Thursday that there are four “access points” along the fencing “to allow those encamped in the project area to access resources and voluntarily comply with the request to relocate.” Signs for those access points were slated to go up that day, she said, “to ensure they are clearly defined.”

County officials say they need to clear the encampment so they can use the area as a central location to store sand and boulders. Those materials will later be used to prevent flooding in neighborhoods across the county and to replenish sand at beaches, they say.

But advocates say there’s no realistic alternative for homeless people in the riverbed to go, given that homeless shelters in the county are nearly full and prevent them from bringing all of their belongings. And the evictions are deepening homeless people’s distrust of officials, they say, making them less inclined to accept services.

The county, meanwhile, has provided data showing that there are still dozens of spaces available each night at shelters in Santa Ana and Fullerton.

Several speakers showed up to the supervisors’ meeting Thursday to urge them to create more housing opportunities to help get people off the streets. That goal has been expressed by the county itself in its plan to end homelessness.

In response to the speakers, Nelson repeated his longstanding response to such calls to action: the county gets hundreds of millions of dollars less than it should in property tax revenues because of unfair state funding formulas. He was the only supervisor to respond to the commenters.

But he did outline what it would take to get such housing built. The challenge for supervisors and the public, he said, is to get a “collective focus” to agree on particular solutions, and get the money to make it happen.

Advocates say they stand ready to work with supervisors on that.

“As Supervisor Nelson noted today, the community and the Board of Supervisors should work together,” said Mohammed Aly, a lawyer and homeless advocate who successfully organized a coalition to get the supervisors to approve a restaurant meals program last year.

He pointed to successful local housing developments for homeless people, like the Potter’s Lane project that opened this week.

“Let’s start the dialogue,” said Aly, who was arrested Wednesday while protesting the riverbed evictions. “[The] riverbed isn’t the solution. Housing is the solution.”

  • Shirley L. Grindle

    One of the grossest misuse of public funds is the $547,000 the county paid last year to produce and distribute over 2 million mailers promoting Supervisor Andrew Do (who was in a desperate battle to get re-elected) and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett.
    Using public funds to promote name identification of County Supervisors to help them get re-eIected is an abuse of taxpayer’s funds and should be prohibited.
    These funds could have been used much more wisely to help the homeless instead of helping incumbent Supervisors secure their re-election.

    • OCservant_Leader

      I agree 100%! Keep it alive Shirley!

      Why should we sit helpless as they illegally use our tax-dollars to keep themselves in power and enrich themselves?

      They are not the majority. They were not legally elected. They are illegitimate and are stealing the taxpayers blind.

      This is nothing more than organized crime. They will not give up power willingly.

      What can we do?

  • Sisu54

    The ACLU should sue the county and the Coastal Commission for allowing the non-permitted development along the perannial stream (The Santa Ana River) instead of trying to keep the non-permitted developments (encampments there) They create point and non-point pollution and is degrading the river and watershed. Shame on the ACLU.

  • David Zenger

    “[The] riverbed isn’t the solution. Housing is the solution.”

    No, the County “solution” is grand and expensive gestures that create more problems then they solve. But O, the ribbon cutting ceremony and the bronze plaque will be marvelous.

  • OCservant_Leader

    Cheers! Filing lawsuits unfortunately is the only way to get the BOS to interact on public policy.

    BOS Nelson – Sir you are being dishonest in continuing the cry about the OC TAX Revenues – shortfall without telling the public the whole truth.

    The truth is The OC Power Elite – chose the formula! Oh yes. This was THEIR doing! Why? Because they philosophically did not agree with providing Human Services to the needy.

    This is also about Racism. The Elite (back in the day) did not want to provide services to primarily Latinos – Mexican-Americans. (This was before the Fall of Saigon and the re-settlement of Asian refugees in OC- which is another discussion.)

    So in their Elite – logic – if they refused the tax dollars – they wouldn’t have to provide the necessary services to the Mexicans. But they could still capitalize on their cheap labor. Perfect OC Thinking.

    Now – decades later this has come back to bite them. It’s the same group in power who did the deal. So tell the whole story.

    Do they really care? No. They still do not agree government should be providing these services and are still primarily racist against Latinos.

    • David Zenger

      Nelson. Or dear me. Lack of revenue from property tax is completely irrelevant – although this has become an all too familiar complaint strategy from the BoS.

      Housing dough does not come out of Net County Cost. It comes from Washington DC – not property tax revenue. And even if there were additional property tax revenue available NONE of it would make it that far down the budgeting food chain. Probably none of it would even get past Hutchens and/or Tony Racetrack.

      Anyway, the County is awash in money. Just look how much gets paid out in settlements and bad contract management. Nobody seems unduly concerned about that.

      • LFOldTimer

        The lack of tax revenue from the state didn’t stop the BoS from unanimously voting to give OCSD a $62 million dollar pay raise in their last contract negotiation and a 10% pay raise in the previous negotiation. The average cop already made over $230,000 in annual comp. Money is no object when it comes to playing the quid pro quo game with the police union. Homeless people don’t have a union that fronts 10’s of thousands of dollar to corrupted politicians. So they get the crumbs.

        • David Zenger

          “The lack of tax revenue from the state didn’t stop the BoS from unanimously voting to give OCSD a $62 million dollar pay raise…”

          Funny how that happened, huh? Just in time to put union dough to work for Do. Re Mi.

        • OCservant_Leader


          My god – this is the
          makings of a police state.

      • OCservant_Leader

        BOS Nelson continues to repeat fake news.

        He takes a fact- OC Tax Revenue Shortfall (which is true) and combines it with a lie (the big bad State Gov took it from us) and uses it to bamboozle the citizens who are left scratching their heads- because no one can figure out the formula.

        The State said “you made your bed OC – now you have to lie in it”.

        OC forfeited those tax dollars. Yes – the same party in power. If we don’t talk about the FACTS – it’s just more deception – on their part.

        OC has so much money – their Cracker Jack overpaid Finance crew in building #10 – screwed up to the tune of $70 Million (first year) when they blew off refinancing the BK.

        Was anyone fired? That’s a Pretty big mistake.

        They all got promoted.

        We should demand our $70 Million back from this regime.

        It’s just mismanagement and corruption.

        Don’t get me started on the SSA Social Workers who cost us $10 Million for lying in Court. I want my tax dollars back!

        The point is -we need a different crew in charge of the purse springs. Nelson and crew get an F – for failure.

        Even with the Tax -Revenue Shortfall the County is awash in money.