This story was updated at 10:27 a.m. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter will decide at 8 a.m. Tuesday whether the county can immediately begin evicting all homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed or, as the county requested over the weekend, let the evictions go forward in stages to address a bottleneck in booking motel rooms for the homeless people.
Lead county counsel Leon Page filed a request with the court Saturday evening, asking if the county could evict the riverbed homeless in segments instead of removing everyone from the riverbed homeless camps Tuesday. He said the delay was necessary for the county to book enough motel or hotel rooms to shelter the homeless for at least 30 days until more permanent arrangements can be made.
“It’s a cluster fuck right now,” riverbed homeless man Jeff Bronniche said Sunday afternoon. “We’re waiting right now (for a motel room).”
The county’s filing said the quick pace of motel bookings could set up homeless people for failure and the large influx of people will put a strain on the county’s healthcare system.
“Harried motel housing for this population may set them up for failure. In fact, some of the individuals housed since last week in motels have already been evicted for failure to comply with rules. Similarly, instantly uploading 300 plus individuals into the County's health care system creates a burden that cannot be met this quickly and sets the system up to fail,” reads the county’s filing.
Illinois native James Petkus also was waiting for a motel as of Sunday night. He’s called Orange County home for 34 years.
“I don’t need a hand out, I need a hand up,” Petkus said from his wheelchair. “I’m not asking to get rich, I’m just asking for enough money to eat and call it a day.”
During a Feb. 13 court discussion, Carter made it clear he wanted the county and lawyers for homeless people to work together to move the homeless from the riverbed and into shelter “humanely.” Carter also has repeatedly said the parties will be moving quicker than expected and that he will continue to monitor what happens to the riverbed homeless.
Carter is scheduled to be at the riverbed at 8 a.m. Tuesday to personally observe the eviction process. He stopped at the homeless camp near Angel stadium for a few minutes Monday afternoon and checked with county staff who were taking peoples’ information to apply for state-issued identification cards and motel bookings.
County spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig said, via email Sunday, staff are working overtime on booking people into motel rooms and connecting them to drug treatment or mental health programs.
“County HCA (Healthcare Agency) staff at all levels have been putting in whatever it takes, time wise, since Tuesday…,” Nentwig wrote. “...Outreach & Engagement staff have been working daily until almost 8 p.m., and yesterday (Saturday) they were still dealing with things as late as 11 p.m.”
Nentwig emailed an update to Voice of OC late Sunday evening that said 116 people have been moved or are moving into motels and about 80 motel rooms are available as of Sunday night and Monday morning.
The county’s court filing Sunday also said many motels won't take paper licenses or county issued identification cards, which many homeless are slated to receive Monday morning.
"In addition to some of the difficulties raised in the County’s Notice of Issues filed yesterday (Saturday), there are a number of motels that require IDs and will not accept paper copies of DMV license print outs or County issued IDs," reads the update.
Five people have been or are being evicted from the motels, according the county’s Saturday court filing.
County Chief Real Estate Officer Scott Mayer is finalizing a six-month lease for 100 motel rooms at an unnamed motel, according to the filing. The lease would immediately provide 50 rooms and 50 more “over the next two weeks.” The maximum occupancy for the rooms is 282 people. There’s an estimated 300-400 people still living on the riverbed.
Both parties came to an agreement Feb. 14 after Carter, the attorneys, numerous county officials, county employees and officials from different cities walked the entire length of the homeless encampment. Carter directed the parties to work together on issues he raised during that walk. The county Board of Supervisors approved the agreement Friday afternoon. Carter also said he’ll be monitoring progress on the eviction and shelter situation.
“If the Court insists on clearing the Santa Ana Riverbed in one day, the County requests that the Court encourage persons suffering from substances addictions or physical ailments to instead select a service option, such as recuperative care bed or substance abuse treatment beds, that will better meet those individuals’ long term needs,” reads the county’s filing.
In the court document, the county also claims that county staff are facing a tough time with more people moving back into the riverbed and “demanding their motel room.” People also are “becoming more aggressive,” some are refusing certain motels based on location and others are refusing drug treatment, according to the document. Before Carter began pushing last week for both sides to reach an agreement on moving people from the riverbank, an unknown number of homeless left this month because Sheriff’s deputies warned if they didn’t go voluntarily, compulsory evictions would follow.
However, the Legal Aid Society, which filed a lawsuit against the county on behalf of some of the disabled homeless living on the riverbed, objected late Saturday night to the county’s request to do the evictions in segments. Legal Aid’s filing said people should be near resources they rely on, disabled homeless should be allowed to make “reasonable modification requests” and argued some of the motels the county is offering are home to “illicit activities.”
Bronniche, a 55-year-old mason, said he broke his back while working and hasn’t been able to work since. The Minnesota native, who’s been in Orange County most of his life, said he’s been on the housing wait list for at least six months.
“Out here, everyday is a struggle. Sometimes you just want to put a gun to your fucking head and blow your head off,” Bronniche said. “Hustling all day for ten, twenty bucks is hard work. It’s damaging to your psyche … they look at you like some kind of fucking alien. I’m just a human being trying to survive, you know.”
After his injury, Bronniche said he became addicted to painkillers, then eventually heroin.
“I don’t steal, I don’t take from the homeless people, I don’t rip anybody off -- I dumpster dive and sell that stuff,” Bronniche said. “It’s not something I’m proud of, being a heroin addict.”
Petkus said they can’t keep cell phones on the riverbed because people steal them. Many social workers and volunteers stay in communication with the homeless on the riverbed through cell phones.
“We can’t keep them (cell phones). There’s people that are really interested in them,” Petkus said. “I understand we’re in (between) a rock and a hard place.”
Petkus said he fears someday he may have to go back to the riverbed or another place like it.
“I don’t think I can handle this again. In fact, I know I can’t. I’m already depressed,” Petkus said. “Sometimes when I cross the bridge, sometimes I wonder…”
“If you’re going to make it to the other side,” Bronniche added.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at email@example.com.