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U.S. District Judge David Carter has ordered a federal court hearing Feb. 13 on whether he should temporarily stop the county’s eviction of the homeless from the Santa Ana Riverbed.

Attorney Brooke Weitzman filed a federal court lawsuit Jan. 29 against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa seeking a temporary restraining order in an effort to end the evictions. The lawsuit claims the county’s lack of shelter beds for the homeless, coupled with the cities’ anti-camping and anti-loitering laws, criminalize the homeless.

Carter, in his order Sunday, noted a similar concern.

“The Court is concerned that persons who leave or are evicted from the Riverbed may subsequently be cited by Defendant Cities under those Cities’ anti-camping or anti-loitering laws, even though those persons may not be able to find a shelter or other place to sleep,” Carter’s order reads.

The request for a temporary restraining order, filed Feb. 1, includes hundreds of pages of supporting documents, including sworn declarations from homeless people describing difficulty obtaining shelter and housing.

“Each of the Defendants has enacted laws aimed at preventing people from, sleeping in public places, whether on public property or in their vehicles, and even barring people from being present in their communities if Plaintiffs have no sheltered place to lay their heads at night,” the restraining order request states.

In addition to the ban on enforcing anti-camping laws, Weitzman’s lawsuit would block Anaheim from enforcing its anti-loitering ordinance. That law makes it a misdemeanor for someone to “annoy” other people while standing or sitting on a public alley, sidewalk, or crosswalk.

But the county, in its response filed with the court, said  “plaintiffs argue in the Application for [temporary restraining order] that they are likely to succeed on the claims for violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment (for cruel and unusual punishment). As to the County, these claims are in fact without merit and should not serve as the basis for the [temporary restraining order]. Moreover, there is no evidence of irreparable harm to justify issuance of the [temporary restraining order].”

The county also said its not enforcing anti-camping laws on the Santa Ana Riverbed, but that it is trying to clear the area for a maintenance project.

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.

(Click here to read the lawyers’ 22-page argument for why they believe the emergency restraining order should be issued.)

(Click here to visit a page to download the entire emergency court order request, which is 447 pages.)

The enforcement approach kicked up on Feb. 1, when officers from the probation and parole departments accompanied sheriff’s deputies on the riverbed and began doing warrant checks.

Probation department spokeswoman Jennifer Palmquist said probation officers probably won’t accuse homeless people of probation violations if they’re living on the riverbed, as long as they’re in good standing on other probation requirements.

“If there is no other circumstance of probation violation other than their presence on the riverbed, then they’ll evaluate it on a case-to-case basis. If a probationer is fulfilling all other stipulations, then its unlikely the probation officer is going to violate them for being there,” Palmquist said in a Friday phone interview.

She also said probation officers are unlikely to take a person into custody while they’re being evaluated.

“If it is someone on their own caseload they will likely evaluate them on the spot, if the probationer is on another probation officer’s caseload the officer on the scene is going to take a few minutes to consult with the assigned officer or his supervisor before making a decision. Not likely to take them into custody without additional law violations,” Palmquist said in a Friday text message.

As of Feb. 1, about 30 percent of the tents have been packed up, according to a news release from sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun. She said there have been 68 arrests since the evictions began Jan. 22. At least 500 people were estimated to be living along the riverbed roughly between the 5 freeway and the Honda Center before the evictions began.

Since Jan. 22, numerous homeless people said they have no plan and are unsure where they can go.  

“Just because I’m homeless, that doesn’t make me a bad person. I’m just a homeless person,” said a man Feb. 2, who doesn’t want to be named. He said the cities’ anti-camping laws forced the people to the riverbed.

“We’re not derelicts. There’s some bad people, but there’s bad people everywhere. They (the cities) pushed us here” he said “Now you’re doing all kinds of crap to get us out of here.”  

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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