Homeless Now Have Several Days to Move From Riverbank Per ACLU Settlement

Thy Vo/Voice of OC

Part of the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed, as seen Friday amid heavy rains.

Dozens of homeless people living at a mile-long section of the Santa Ana River will now have several days to move out of the area, after Orange County officials settled a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The settlement agreement, which went into effect yesterday, extends the deadline to Thursday for people to leave an encampment on the eastern banks of the river, next to the 57 freeway from Orangewood Avenue near Angel Stadium to just south of the 22 freeway.

The settlement was announced just as a major rain and windstorm moved into the county, which lacks enough shelter space to house most of its homeless population.

New signs have been posted in the area warning people that February 23 is the “final date” for people to remove their belongings and move out. After that day, property will be seized and those who stay could be prosecuted for trespassing, the signs warn.

Thy Vo/Voice of OC

A new notice along the riverbank, in a photo taken Friday.

Until then, county officials will not restrict access to the area and will help people move their belongings out, according to county spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

“We were heartened to see Orange County do the right thing to address the emergency situation in the riverbed,” said Brendan Hamme, a lead attorney on the case for the ACLU of Southern California. “But the county still has much work to do to provide desperately needed permanent housing for the many people without it.”

(Click here to read the settlement and here for the new notices.)

The area has been the subject of intense debate recently, with advocates harshly criticizing county supervisors for trying to remove homeless people from what activists describe as a last-resort refuge amid a shortage of shelter and housing options.

Several people who lived in the area have been forced to move in recent days by county workers and sheriffs’ deputies, advocates say. 

County officials, meanwhile, say the encampment is on a restricted county maintenance road, and that officials need to store boulders and sand there for public works projects.

After new county fencing went up last week, the ACLU sued, alleging that officials had effectively “imprisoned” at least 75 homeless people who live along that part of the river, cutting them off from food, water, and medical care.

County officials disputed such claims, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson calling them “ridiculous” and “dishonest.”  But the county quickly moved to settle the case, just before a federal judge was slated to decide Thursday whether to issue a restraining order against the county.

Under the settlement, the county agreed to extend the eviction date to Feb. 23 and post clear notices in the area to let people know.

(Click here to see a map of the project area.)

According to the notice, property seized after the deadline will be held for 90 days and can be claimed by appointment at a public works yard in Lake Forest, near the corner of Portola Pkwy. and El Toro Rd.

For those seeking to claim property there, the county will provide free bus passes or other transportation to the storage area, and from the storage area to anywhere in Orange County besides the riverbank, according to the settlement.

County officials also promised to allow “adequate” access into and out of the encampment area until next Thursday’s deadline and “ensure access for emergency vehicles and personnel,” both of which were key concerns among homeless people and advocates.

Despite the settlement, county officials contend in the agreement “that the Santa Ana Riverbed and Project Area are not safe for public access, use, or habitation.” And they reserved “the right to respond to and address illegal activity occurring on [riverbed] property.”

The county also agreed to pay the ACLU’s attorney fees for the lawsuit. If any of the settlement terms are violated, the ACLU can take the county to court again to make sure it’s enforced.

In a one of the most recent ACLU lawsuits against the county, the county ended up losing in federal appeals court and had to pay nearly $4 million in legal fees to the civil rights group.

County officials are also facing a separate federal lawsuit over the riverbank evictions, which was filed Monday by attorneys Carol Sobel, Brooke Weitzman, and others.

The suit claims that the county has illegally “seized personal property and largely destroyed it without an opportunity for the rightful owner to reclaim it,” in violation of rulings by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

County officials haven’t yet filed a response in that case.

(Click here to read the second lawsuit.)

As for where homeless people living in the encampment should move to, the county says it doesn’t have a recommendation but does offer referrals to shelters.

“The County has not advised the homeless where to relocate, but the Health Care Agency Outreach and Engagement Teams continue to offer resources and shelter options to individuals encamped in the area,” said Braun, the county spokeswoman, in an email.

Homeless advocates, meanwhile, are focusing on getting county supervisors to follow through on key aspects of their plan to end homelessness. A coalition of various community, business and faith groups is being formed to support the effort, activists say.

“While the settlement addresses the false imprisonment of the homeless at the riverbed, it does not address the homelessness crisis in the OC,” the ACLU said in a statement Friday.

“The OC is one of the most affluent counties in the nation, but has yet to adequately fund its Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness that it passed back in 2010 and provide permanent supportive housing for its most vulnerable residents.

“The ACLU SoCal continues to monitor the situation, reaching out to impacted people and informing them of their rights under the settlement agreement, and remains committed to working with the county to ensure that homeless residents are treated fairly and given the resources and housing they need to succeed.”

Voice of OC staff writer Thy Vo contributed reporting to this story.

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

  • PIFA123

    Each ACLU member should shut up and walk the walk. Take in 1 homeless each to their own home. I mean if it is such a good thing to have them live in the neighborhood then it should be theirs by all means. Until they step up how can the rest of us drink this kool-aide?

  • Darrick Vincent

    Most of these people are already receiving county aid. If they were able to keep sober there are plenty of shelters to stay at. Thats the rub; you have to follow rules at a shelter. The main issue with most of them is drug or alcohol use, which is a personal decision but not a reason to allow them to camp anywhere they please. We really need a way to force rehab on those that need it, but the libs would never allow that.

    • Valkyrie Joos

      You are absolutely incorrect. There are not “plenty of shelters, if they would just stay sober.” Further, we do not even have a contract with a provider in our county for medical detoxification. There are things we can do, but your statement is not based in the reality of the situation. You are basically taking a “let them eat cake” stance. These are human beings. They have been accused of urinating but have any of you called to demand they install portable facilities? For trash, hygiene and perhaps a mobile Healthcare unit? There is good and bad everywhere. However, this is a reflection of us. All of us! We all have culpability and sober or not, they are children of God!

  • OCservant_Leader

    Can we hear what the County’s next plan is from the Homeless Czar?

  • Sisu54

    So Cal ACLU has $42 million in assets. Why don’t they let the encampments move to their parking lots and use their bathrooms and kitchens, we all know that won’t happen. The head guy makes 350K and year and legal director makes $220k a year, they don’t live in within 10 miles of the mess they have created.

    • Hi Sisu54, Nick Gerda here. I definitely did not mark those comments as spam; in fact this is the first that I’m seeing the comment. I just spoke with my colleagues and looked at our comment system (Disqus), and the system is showing that your original comment was flagged by another reader as spam and Disqus automatically removed it without our knowledge.

      I went into the system just now to re-activate your comment, and another recent comment of yours on the article about the ACLU and county being in settlement talks. We welcome debate and discussion in our comment threads – here’s our comment policy: https://voiceofoc.org/2015/01/voice-of-oc-unveils-new-comment-system/

      If there’s ever any issues with your comments not showing up, please shoot me an email at ngerda@voiceofoc.org and I’ll get on it ASAP (email is faster since I don’t check the comment sections as often).

      Nick Gerda
      Staff Writer, Voice of OC

      • Sisu54

        Thanks Nick. Hopefully the County, ACLU and Coastal Commission, US Army Corp of Engineers, cities on the River and EPA can move the encampments away from this precious resource and not violate local, state and federal Clean Water Laws!

        We don’t need the OC turning into Flint Michigan!

        • Happy to help on the comments issue. What’s interesting is there’s pretty widespread agreement (including among the county and homeless advocates) that the riverbed is not the solution as far as where people should be living. The question seems to come down to where people can realistically move to, given that the county’s shelters are near capacity and cities often ticket homeless people for camping in their jurisdictions. Any thoughts or comments are welcome. – Nick Gerda

  • LFOldTimer

    Is it possible for the taxpayers to get an itemized accounting and the final tab we’re forced to pay for the ACLU legal services? Or will that information get buried too under some fake provision filed under client- attorney privilege?

    What did this lawsuit really accomplish?

    So the homeless get a few extra days to pack up their belongings and the county will transport it to warehouse holding site.

    And then the county will later move the belongings to a location of their choice? Where are the homeless going to relocate those belongings (tents, etc..) in a lawful manner? No city would allow it. And the county certainly won’t (as we found out). Permanent camping is not allowed in any state or national park.

    Hello? Can anyone in county government think more than 2 steps in advance?

    Where the h*ll is Susan Price, the new Homeless Czar, and is she returning phone calls on this matter? If not, WHY NOT??? That’s what we’re paying her for!!!

    Oh, and Rusty Kennedy – we have a Human Relations crisis here, sir!!! Or don’t you consider homeless people humans???

  • verifiedsane

    Where ever this population is directed to next by the political overlords; please have them pack up their mountains of trash to take it with them…having a place to sleep and live, does not insure their non-right to create a public and environmental disaster…

  • Annie Nanimoss

    Good job Steve Franks. No wonder you’re running away to Villa Park. What other messes are you leaving behind?

    • LFOldTimer

      Steve Franks is on the way out?

      That’s some of the best news I’ve heard in months.

      • OCservant_Leader

        He is one rich dude. Moving onto the double dipping side- eh? Taxpayers you will be paying him two monthly checks now. Add his last wife – that’s 3.

        Is he a selfless public servant or addicted to tax dollars on direct-deposit?

        • LFOldTimer

          I pity the Villa Park animals if Franks has any control over their lives.

          If I was a dog in Villa Park I’d run away from home and seek an owner in a neighboring city.

  • verifiedsane

    The ACLU is just a far left selective political mouthpiece….So where are these without a stick home people supposed to move with this granted stay of removal….oh yeah, some fantasy land that has yet to be determined…there you go, problem solved! Just brilliant!

  • Sisu54

    Wow OC Voice marks any negative comments about the ACLU that are true as spam! So much for the free press haha!