U.S. District Judge David O. Carter began walking the length of the entire Santa Ana River homeless camp before sunrise Wednesday getting a firsthand look at the sprawling camp, stopping to talk with homeless people and even pulling trash out of the river.
“Normally we judges … are a little bit skittish of (news) publications, but this is the best thing that can happen (the media attention) because the public knows (about the homeless situation). The public will do the good thing. There’ll be donations out here. There’ll be help,” Carter told Voice of OC. He said big organizations around the county also will step up to help.
“Before it (the homeless issue) was below (the public consciousness). We get it up there and get it to boil,” the federal court judge said.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who joined the riverbed hike, said Carter is a necessary piece in helping the county address the homeless issue.
“It might be a little bit of judicial activism on his part, but he was the necessary glue to bring all these various pieces together … that’s his magic, that’s what he does,” Spitzer told Voice of OC.
While walking through the camp with attorneys from both sides of a lawsuit to block evictions of the homeless, along with some top county managers, Carter directed them to get back together in the courtroom after the four-hour hike and begin crafting an agreement beyond the temporary relief efforts they agreed to Tuesday.
That agreement included vouchers provided by the county for 30-day stays at motels and added beds at shelters, along with tents on various plots of county land. Orange County has a shortage of overnight shelter space. By Wednesday night, the county and lawyers for homeless people reached a final agreement.
Like Tuesday’s first day of court hearings, Carter told the attorneys he wanted things to move quickly.
After hiking up and down the approximately three-mile stretch of riverbed, Carter told the attorneys “don’t worry about changing (clothes). Get there (to the courtroom) and start drafting (an agreement).”
“Guess what. I’m sitting there (in his courtroom), until midnight. I’m not going any place until you come in …,” Carter told the attorneys, adding he wanted an agreement between the two sides. “You tell me when I can go home.”
Carter, in Tuesday’s court hearing, pushed the opposing attorneys to hammer out a deal that would provide 400 vouchers for at least 30 days at motels, additional beds at the Kraemer homeless shelter in Anaheim and the potential to open up parking lots for emergency tent shelters in places like empty ground by the Registrar of Voters office, as well as the Kraemer parking lot.
Scores of homeless people came out to greet Carter during his walk and thank him for the way he was steering the case in court. Carter was quick to remind them that people will have to be cleared out of the area by 9 a.m. next Tuesday, Feb. 20.
“Thank you judge, I really appreciate it,” MJ Diehl told Carter as he walked through the north end of the camp in between Ball Road/Taft Avenue and Katella, near the Honda Center. “Yeah, I’d love to take a shower,” Diehl said when Carter asked if he would go to a motel after informing him the camp would be closed next Tuesday.
County workers had already put up Carter’s notice the area is to be cleared out by 9 a.m. Feb. 20. The notice also told homeless people there will be a place for them to go.
Carter, wearing a blue sweater with the federal district court seal on it, blue jeans and sneakers, would occasionally stop and snap pictures on his phone of abandoned camps, empty sections of the riverbed and trash heaps yet to be picked up by county workers. He also walked the length of the riverbed homeless camp last year while handling a different case.
One homeless man was raking up some trash before Carter walked through the area. Carter thanked the man and asked if he needed any trash bags. The judge then hollered to county staff to bring more bags for the man.
Carter also helped recruit two volunteers near Camp Hope -- a homeless advocate-run media outreach organization for the homeless living there -- that will help find veterans living on the riverbed and get them signed up with Veterans Affairs programs. Carter spoke with them and asked them to help county’s efforts by speaking with veterans on the riverbed.
The homeless encampment has significantly dwindled since sheriff’s deputies walked tent-to-tent Jan. 22 and told people they needed to pack up and leave soon under an eviction process called “voluntary compliance.” The move led to a lawsuit, filed Jan. 29 by attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, on behalf of The Catholic Worker and seven homeless people. The situation remained the same until Feb. 1, when parole and probation officers accompanied deputies on the riverbed and arrest numbers began to tick up.
The county planned to start citing and arresting people Feb. 7 but late the night before, Carter issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the sheriff’s department from doing that.
On Wednesday morning, many spots along the riverbed that previously had numerous tents, were cleared out. Trash from a number of former campsites’ was neatly piled up and put in bright orange bags provided by the county.
“Honestly, I think the plaintiffs and defendants want the same goal. We don’t want to see a mass exodus of people into the cities. We don’t want to see arrests,” Spitzer said, at the end of the walk.
The riverbed is slated to be closed for over three miles, from Ball Road/Taft Avenue, bordering Anaheim and Orange, to Memory Lane, bordering Garden Grove and Santa Ana. County officials said the proposed closure is for a maintenance project along the riverbed. Carter said the county may do that, so long as they move the homeless out “humanely” and help them into housing and services.
While on his brisk walk through the encampment on a cool Wednesday morning, Carter was flanked by two sheriff’s deputies and two U.S. Marshals, and various county and city officials including Spitzer, County CEO Frank Kim, Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray, Huntington Beach Councilman Billy O’Connell and various attorneys from the cities and county and Weitzman and Sobel.
There were two electric flatbed carts following Carter and company that carried bottled water and occasionally some officials. Carter never sat in the carts.
Carter also noted his concern about women, especially abused women, on the riverbed. He stopped to thank a volunteer who focuses on helping abused homeless women, when a homeless woman, Enjay, stepped forward and told him that she’s “fallen through the cracks” on assistance programs and still is waiting to get housing.
“We’ll do our best with the best of bad solutions,” Carter told Enjay, noting he’s very concerned for the abused women on the riverbed.
Enjay, who only gave her first name, said she and other abused women stay close together at night for protection and that some men have stepped up to help protect them from “predators” on the riverbed.
She told Voice of OC she made too much money in 2016 to qualify for 2017 assistance programs and abused women’s programs turned her away because she wasn’t abused in the last 90 days.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “So you want me to get attacked to qualify for these resources?”
In addition to talking to homeless people living on the riverbed, Carter picked up trash from the bottom of the river, including a five-gallon plastic water jug, a metal rod and some plastic piping.
“This stuff doesn’t degrade for a thousand years,” he said to his two clerks. “Ridiculous.”
He called the attorneys over as he walked back up the riverbank, holding the trash.
“I threatened to sic the environmental groups in the lawsuit, right? But I desisted, so I didn’t have the environmental groups fighting with the homeless groups,” Carter told the attorneys.
Carter then turned to county CEO Kim.
“Can you pick this stuff up? And if not, I’m going to call the environmental groups … you want some help? I got lots of help,” Carter told Kim.
Kim and other county officials declined the offer Carter made on behalf of the environmental groups.
“It’s OK. I can take directions,” Kim said.
Plastic jugs and piping weren’t the only thing Carter picked up on his walk through the camp.
He passed by a county cleanup crew on the segment next to Angel Stadium and thanked them for the “tough job” they have.
Carter started to dig through the debris and ask about needles when he lifted up a hazardous material container that held used needles.
Many officials told him to not touch the needle box, but Carter ignored them and told the officials that cleanup crews wouldn’t be able to get all the needles the first time, but they’d have “to come back to get it all.”
Debbie Wales, a 60-year-old Orange County native who lives on the riverbed, said she’s thankful for Carter “treating us as human beings.”
“I don’t want to live here. Some people want to, I don’t,” Wales told Voice of OC. “It’s hard because getting a place for me on my income. I’m on social security -- I’m disabled.”
Wales, with her two cats in her tent near Angel Stadium, began to choke up and wipe away tears when she lifted up two cans of tuna she recently got to feed her cats.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping away tears, holding the two cans. “I have cat food. I haven’t been able to get them food for a while.”
She’s been homeless since April and has been on the waitlist for rapid rehousing for at least two months, Wales said. “It’s really hard being single, alone and trying to come up with the money … I did not ever think I’d be here, ever in a million years, be homeless.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.