Santa Ana, County Sued For Violating Civil Rights of Civic Center Homeless Population

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

The homeless encampment at the Orange County Civic Center in downtown Santa Ana.

A nonprofit organization known as the Elder Law and Disability Center is suing the city of Santa Ana and County of Orange over the treatment of homeless people inhabiting the Civic Center, public property in downtown Santa Ana where hundreds of homeless people camp between government buildings.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of OC Catholic Worker and seven homeless plaintiffs, who allege law enforcement has created additional hardships for homeless people by seizing property and issuing citations while people are away from their belongings, going to the bathroom, attending doctor’s appointments and performing other essential tasks.

“Because this not only violates the Constitution and creates a public health crisis, endangering our most vulnerable community members, we had no choice to file a lawsuit,” said Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the Elder Law and Disability Center, at a Santa Ana City Council meeting Tuesday.

Weitzman successfully sued the county earlier this year over the seizure of belongings for homeless people living along the Santa Ana River.

The homeless people represented in the lawsuit include veterans and people with disabilities.

Taylor Andrew Kent, an Air Force veteran with a disability related to his service, who also has a terminal cancer diagnosis, had his belongings seized and was unable to recover his medications when he picked them up, according to the complaint. The lawsuit claims that, without his medications, Kent’s health deteriorated and he was subsequently hospitalized for seizures and an infection. While hospitalized, Kent’s belongings were seized again.

The lawsuit also argues that the options provided for the homeless are inadequate.

When people’s belongings are seized, they are stored at a facility over two miles away and there is no process for labeling people’s belongings for retrieval, according to the lawsuit.

The Courtyard Center, a partially outdoor emergency shelter at an abandoned bus terminal next to the Civic Center, houses over 400 people.

“More threats of citation and arrest have pushed people into the courtyard terminal, regardless of whether the terminal was over capacity or affected the mental health of those people,” said Brooke Weitzman, “The people who were not moved into the courtyard were forced into the Plaza of Flags, an area that is only cement and outside of any grass and shade that could protect them from the elements.”

Charles Dorsey, another plaintiff in the case, is described in the lawsuit as having mobility limitations after he was struck by a drunk driver and needed surgery. The lawsuit says Dorsey was asked to move his tent out of the shade by a police officer, despite explaining that he needed to be in the shade to recuperate from his surgery.

The lawsuit argues that the city and county have violated Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional protections to due process and against unreasonable search and seizure, by seizing and destroying homeless people’s belongings without adequate notice and reasonable options to retrieve personal property.

It also alleges the county and city are violating the civil rights of the homeless by destroying tents and tarps and exposing people to harsh weather.

The organization is seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the enforcement of Santa Ana’s anti-camping ordinance and the seizure of property; require the city and county to replace blankets, tents and tarps that are seized; and to require seized property be stored at a more accessible location.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.