A detailed plan was finalized in federal court Friday for removing the estimated 300 to 400 homeless people still camped along the Santa Ana River and offering them motel rooms.
And the judge overseeing the arrangement said he'll continue to stay involved well into the future.
The specifics were announced in the Santa Ana courtroom of U.S. District Judge David O. Carter and agreed to by county officials and lawyers for homeless people. It includes having lawyers on all sides – and Carter – on scene to observe the evictions Tuesday and ensure people are treated humanely and offered the chance to move into motel rooms.
County officials and lawyers for homeless people said they planned to work over the three-day holiday weekend to help ensure any homeless people who want motel rooms before the deadline can quickly move into them. On Wednesday and Thursday, a total of 34 homeless people moved from the riverbed into motels, according to county officials.
For homeless people who still are at the riverbed Tuesday morning, county mental health workers will take the lead in speaking with them and offering shelter and motel rooms for at least 30 days. The county also has agreed to set up further shelter beyond that timeframe, and Carter has expressed a preference for camps with small tents or sheds and centralized services like food, medical care, restrooms and showers.
Standing at some distance behind the mental health workers Tuesday will be sheriff’s deputies and lawyers for homeless people and the county, under the plan negotiated by all sides in an ongoing federal lawsuit by lawyers for homeless people.
The evictions are scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the northern end of the camp, just south of Ball Road in Anaheim, and move south. Shelter and motel beds will be offered before people are required to leave, county officials said.
At Carter’s urging, the adversarial lawsuit quickly turned into a collaborative effort by county officials and attorneys for homeless people to quickly – and, as the judge emphasized, “humanely” – provide shelter for the people who will be removed from the riverbed.
As issues have came up – such as homeless people not having photo IDs required by some motels – Carter embraced them as opportunities for officials to fix problems as they arise. Among other efforts, county officials have made arrangements to provide ID cards to homeless people.
When somebody says they “failed,” Carter said, that’s “not a bad thing,” because they tried and everyone will work to fix what’s wrong.
When county officials told the judge they were having trouble getting motel owners to agree to host homeless people, the judge made a phone call in the courtroom and addressed major concerns raised by the motel owners. The biggest was who will take responsibility for paying to fix any damage to motel property, which the county has agreed to take on.
In order to receive motel rooms, homeless people must agree to a code of conduct that, if violated, can result in their removal from motels.
With permission on the other end of the line from a realtor trying to get motel owners on board, Carter placed the call on speakerphone in court and leaned into the audience seats so attorneys for both sides of the case could weigh in to address concerns.
Carter reminded the realtor and her father that they had Carter’s home telephone number and could call over the weekend. “I don’t care if you call me at midnight,” the judge said.
Richard Sanchez, who leads the county Health Care Agency and had run into difficulty convincing a motel owner to provide rooms, expressed relief at the judge’s involvement to help move the process forward, as did county attorneys.
Both sides of the lawsuit – county lawyers and lawyers for homeless people – were smiling when they walked out of Friday’s hearing. They separately praised each other’s collaborative spirit and expressed gratitude for Carter’s efforts.
“We had really phenomenal collaboration with opposing counsel,” said the county’s top attorney, Leon Page, as he addressed the judge Friday. “I would just like to thank opposing counsel for being so professional [and] cooperative in this process.”
During and after Friday’s court hearing, the top lawyers on each side said they were confident they can work together to resolve challenges that emerge in the coming days.
Both sides have been “working really successfully together,” Brooke Weitzman, the lead attorney for homeless people, told the judge.
As issues came up, she added, “the county has worked quickly to resolve them.” Sometimes, by the time Weitzman brought an issue up, she said, county officials “were already working on a solution.”
One example is government-issued ID cards, which some motel owners require. Many homeless people don’t have driver’s licenses – or they’re expired – which created problems this week when the county starting trying to move homeless people into motels.
County officials have moved to fix that issue, Page said in court Friday. If a homeless person at the riverbed doesn’t have a photo ID, the county will try to move them to a motel that doesn’t require one, he said.
If that’s not feasible, he said, the Sheriff’s Department will be able to access the state DMV database from their mobile command post and print out a copy of their driver’s license. If a motel owner insists that’s not sufficient, the county public works department can issue a county ID just like they do for county employees, Page said.
“Outstanding,” Carter said in response. He thanked the county officials and lawyers, as well as Weitzman and the other lawyers for homeless people, for their “extraordinary efforts,”
Federal Judge to Continue Monitoring
The judge said he’d be closely involved in monitoring the situation going forward, including after the minimum-30-day motel stays.
“This is just the very, very beginning,” Carter said earlier Friday as he heard testimony from a homeless advocate. “I’m not going away. This is just the beginning. A baby step, that’s all this is.”
He later added: “In 30 days, something will happen. This is the beginning. This is not the end. This is the beginning.”
The judge made clear that he planned to help people who are able bodied and willing to work, as well as people who need medical and mental health help. At the same time, he said he would not help people who can work but simply are “wandering around.”
“I’m not gonna support the homeless lifestyle,” Carter said. “But by the same token, I will take care of the people who truly need help.”
He said the attention the issue is receiving will prompt community members to make a positive difference when it comes to homelessness.
“The notoriety will let good people step up [and] solve it,” Carter said.
Carter also heard emotional testimony Friday from Heidi Zimmerman, a homeless advocate who has been repeatedly ignored by county supervisors when she’s come to testify at their meetings.
Zimmerman showed photos of homeless friends of hers along the riverbed who have passed away in the last couple of years. Some of her homeless friends have severe disabilities, she said, showing a photo of a man with a major burn through his eye socket.
She expressed concern about large-scale shelters that don’t offer privacy to homeless people, citing studies showing that it’s important for people’s mental health that they receive quiet sleep in a dark place.
Carter took a strong interest in Zimmerman’s testimony, asking her questions, thanking her for her comments and inviting her to offer solutions.
Regarding plans going forward, Carter said he expected the county to follow through on its commitment to set up temporary shelter on various county properties as well as the WISEPlace women’s shelter in Santa Ana.
County officials have committed to providing 300 to 400 new beds on various properties, separately from the motel rooms, which could become a place for people in medium-term after the month-long motel stays.
Carter wanted the first round of tents on county property to be set up by Thursday of next week.
The county has purchased large tents for the parking lot at the Kraemer shelter in Anaheim, which are expected to arrive at the LAX airport in Los Angeles on Monday, Page said in court. Those tents are expected be delivered to Kraemer that evening, he said.
Carter said large tents would be fine for Kraemer, but pressed the county to place smaller tents or small prefabricated sheds on the other properties.
During the motel stays, county officials have committed to conducting a medical assessment of each homeless person to determine their needs and what type of shelter, housing, and support services they need.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Carter’s temporary restraining order banning the evictions will expire, and county officials will have legal authority to remove homeless people from the riverbed.
But under the plan, which Carter said he will be on site to oversee, county mental health workers will first offer homeless people a bed at a shelter or a recuperative care facility.
If they decline, the health worker will offer a motel room that is already reserved, as well as transportation to the room and a $75 food gift card so the homeless person can have “immediate access to food” until more permanent food access is available, said Page when he formally announced the plan in court.
Additionally, at Carter’s request, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs also has committed to have a team of nurses and outreach workers on scene to help connect homeless veterans to housing and health services.
From the beginning of his first hearing on the case Tuesday, Carter urged both sides of the lawsuit to set aside the usual adversarial approach of the American legal system and instead try to collaborate on problem-solving to satisfy what both sides want.
The county wants people cleared out from the riverbed – which it will get to do Tuesday – while homeless advocates don’t want homeless people forced into cities that arrest people for camping in public, amid a shortage of shelter beds.
Homelessness long has been an issue in Orange County, and one that county officials historically have shied away from taking leadership.
As Carter reminded officials this week, a county grand jury declared in 2006 that “the homeless problem does not appear to be a priority with the Board of Supervisors.” The only county money devoted to homelessness at the time was $143,000, “solely for management salaries,” the panel said.
Carter emphasized the 2006 findings don’t reflect on the current county supervisors, none of whom were in office back then. But Carter did repeatedly remind county officials he could start asking tough questions about “hundreds of millions” of dollars in public money they have allegedly stockpiled that could help homeless people.
Orange County now is one of the most expensive rental markets in the country, and the gap between income and housing costs continues to widen.
There is widespread agreement that a major solution to the housing crisis would be building more housing. But experts say the pace of new home construction still is far behind what’s needed to keep pace with the growth in demand.
As for cities’ anti-camping and loitering laws in cities, Anaheim officials say their police officers enforce them against homeless people, but that their focus first is on offering services and shelter.
The actual issuing of such citations is rare, according to data Anaheim submitted to the court at Carter’s request.
No camping citations were issued between Jan. 1 and Feb. 11, according to a court filing by the city, and one citation was issued for loitering during that period. Details of the citation weren't immediately available.
Anaheim has helped 960 individual people transition from homelessness since 2014, according to city spokesman Mike Lyster.
It’s unclear to what extent the city of Orange, which also borders the riverbed, enforces such laws. The Orange Police Department’s spokesman, Sgt. Phil McMullin, didn’t return a phone message Friday seeking that information, nor did City Attorney Wayne Winthers.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.