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.”

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