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Attorney Brooke Weitzman Monday filed a federal court lawsuit in an effort to halt the county’s eviction of hundreds of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed, but the county immediately said it will continue telling people to leave unless a judge orders it to stop.

“We’re hopeful the county will choose voluntarily to postpone this action until there is a viable alternative or at least until we’ve had time to discuss it with the county and the cities. But if not, then we’ll proceed with asking the court for a temporary restraining order,” Weitzman told reporters at a news conference in front of the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC).

The lawsuit was filed in Federal Court against the County of Orange and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange, she said.

But the Sheriff’s department said it will continue asking people to leave the riverbed.

“There’s been no decision on behalf of a judge that would require us to stop asking for voluntary compliance. Until that point in time comes, we’ll keep moving forward,” said Sheriff’s Spokeswoman Carrie Braun in a Monday phone interview.

Weitzman said, in a Monday night email, she hopes to reach a solution with all the involved parties, but will try to get a court order if the “voluntary compliance” eviction continues.

“We have been able to work with the County before. We hope to reach a solution that will work for all the parties. However, if the County does continue the current process we will seek a court order to stop those actions until adequate alternatives are offered,” she wrote, without specifying when she will seek that order.

Weitzman, who is representing the nonprofit group Orange County Catholic Worker and seven homeless individuals, said the county isn’t offering viable options where people can go and the cities in the lawsuit, among many others in Orange County, have “criminalized” being homeless with anti-camping and anti-loitering ordinances. She said the Santa Ana riverbed it’s the last place they can go in the County.

“Many people on the riverbed, including our clients, came to the riverbed because they were being criminalized in these cities. They were being stopped for no reason other than being homeless,” Weitzman said. “They fled to the riverbed in hopes of stability while they get back on their feet.”

But county spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig said the county has been offering assistance to the homeless on the riverbed for over two years.

“The County has been actively engaged in offering available resources for more than two years through Health Care Agency Outreach and Engagement, and intensive case management services have been provided through a County contract with CityNet. In addition, the County is offering transportation to shelters, kenneling of animals at no cost, and storage of essential items for up to 90 days,” Nentwig wrote in a Monday email.  

But Weitzman said there aren’t enough beds being offered and the armories aren’t viable for a number of people because many of them are elderly couples where one person is the caretaker of the other and can’t be separated overnight. Additionally, she said the Kraemer Place shelter in Anaheim and the bus terminal shelter in Santa Ana are routinely full.

Sheriff’s deputies began clearing the riverbed using “voluntary compliance” when they walked tent-to-tent Jan. 22 and told the riverbed homeless they need to start packing up their camps and heading out, or they will soon be cited or arrested. No deadline was given when they have to leave and no date was given on when citations will be issued and arrests made.

“The Sheriff’s department are doing everything we can to respect the Constitutional rights of the people there and to provide them with access to resources and to comply with the requests voluntary compliance to relocate,” Braun said.

Unlike over the weekend, Sheriff’s deputies had a big presence Monday as they rolled through the encampment and once again told people they need to make progress on packing up their belongings and eventually leave.

A couple leaves the homeless encampment, heading north toward the Honda Center on Jan. 29, 2018. The woman walking her bike is carrying an empty jug to fill with water at a public restroom. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

People living on the riverbed faced uncertainty over the past week as they tried to figure out where they’ll go next.

One homeless man wrapped it up in one word: “Confusion.”

“Nobody’s getting any kind of answers. There are those of us that are holding out,” said 57-year-old Greg Schulze, who’s lived in the OC for 53 years.

“We started out by the beach. In the last year this will be our fourth major move,” Schulze said. “We can’t really go back to the cities — they made that perfectly clear. It’s getting harder and harder for people finding a place to go.”

Schulze, who’s been homeless “on and off” over the past 5 years said his wife lost her job of over 17 years and from there, “we couldn’t afford the rents.” He was working graveyard shifts but had to stop because he didn’t want to leave his wife homeless by herself overnight.

The lawsuit argues that because people are being forced out of the riverbed and the lack of available shelter, the homeless people will ultimately have to go back into cities where they’ll be subjected to tickets and arrests from anti-camping and anti-loitering laws.

“Nearly every city in the County criminalizes homelessness through ordinances that make it unlawful to be present, sit or sleep in a public place even if a person is without a home. To avoid harassment and incarceration for violating these and similar laws criminalizing the basic necessities of living, many people move to locations such as the Santa Ana riverbed, hoping that law enforcement will not interfere or harass them while they try to survive,” the lawsuit reads.

At the news conference, Weitzman said numerous reports were presented to the Board of Supervisors over the years that indicated the shortage of affordable housing was the problem, yet the county and cities failed to do anything about it. She said studies indicate a “housing first” model is an effective way to curb the rising homelessness epidemic.

United Way (in a 2017 report) said the Orange County homeless population is not the same as other ones that we really see people who simply couldn’t afford the housing because of the rate at which its increasing and the lack of available affordable housing,” Weitzman said. “Despite all of those reports, the governments in this case — the defendants — have chosen repeatedly to choose criminalization over housing.”

Under the housing first model, people are immediately given access to permanent housing, without having to work their way there through various programs, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. From there, people can gain access to services such as job training/placement, drug treatment, health care and mental health services.

“We’re hoping, that going forward, that this case will enable the county and the cities to work together to promote the housing first model to stop the actions that criminalize the simple act of being homelessness or being poor,” Weitzman said.

An abandoned campsite next to a tent that appears to still be occupied outside the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC) on Jan. 29, 2018. Credit: SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The riverbed trail now is closed to everyone for maintenance along an approximately three-mile stretch.

The camp is segmented into two portions.  

One part of the encampment stretches on the west bank of the river near Angel Stadium, in between the Anaheim transportation center (ARTIC) and underneath the 57 freeway bridge, to the 5 freeway, running along the 57 freeway. That stretch is just under 1.5 miles long, according to Google maps.

The other stretch begins with what’s known as “Camp Hope” on the east bank of the Santa Ana river next to the Honda Center, which runs from Ball Road/Taft Avenue to Katella Avenue. That stretch of the encampment is about .7 miles long, according to Google Maps.

The overall camp has been thinning out over the past week, but an exact count of how many people have left is tough to gauge.

“This is a very fluid population,” Braun said. “We don’t have an exact number … but we have seen moderate progress being made.”

Meanwhile, one homeless man said the riverbed homeless are “jumpy” and “on edge,” because of the increased Sheriff’s deputies and news media presence. He didn’t want to give his name.

A newsletter, “The Riverbed Wash,” was being circulated Monday that echoed what the man said. An unknown author wrote a post about the start of the eviction Jan. 22 and offered insight on the increased media presence:

“It was a police news conference, a media feeding frenzy with the homeless as the main course. Attorney Mohammed Aly, advocate for and defender of the homeless and their rights, tried to protect the privacy of one homeless person as the press did what they do best, invaded a citizen’s privacy without permission or regard for anything but their ratings.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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