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This story was updated Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 at 8:58 p.m.
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter angrily reprimanded Orange County’s top lawyer Wednesday night for failing to prevent a mix-up that allowed Sheriff’s deputies to move into a homeless encampment on the northeast bank of the Santa Ana Riverbed before county healthcare workers arrived to offer homeless people housing and services.
“My deputy sheriffs feel like they’re completely neutered and unable to assist in the process at all,” County Counsel Leon Page told Carter at an end-of-the-day meeting to update the judge on progress finding motel rooms and other shelter for hundreds of homeless people camped along the river.
“I hold you officially accountable for it,” Carter replied. “The coordination was screwed up.”
“I just don’t understand–” Page said, before the judge cut him off.
“Because you don’t want to. You live up to your obligation. I hold you completely responsible,” Carter said, visibly angry. “And if you won’t be responsible, get somebody out here who is or you get to my courtroom and I’ll stop it.”
The argument was sparked by sheriff’s deputies moving in to take names and other information from homeless people early Wednesday morning before county health workers had a chance to interview them and arrange for a motel room or other shelter. One man, Adam Shuaib, a homeless veteran, was waiting for a ride to the county courthouse when he was arrested. He had two open warrants for drug charges.
An agreement reached last week between the county and attorneys for homeless people specifically required sheriff’s deputies to take a back seat in the effort to move homeless people from the riverbed and into county-financed motel rooms. Health workers were supposed to offer services before deputies began enforcing evictions.
Around 8 a.m. Wednesday, Sheriff’s deputies went tent-to-tent looking for people who had yet to move out, notifying them to pack up and checking for outstanding warrants. Deputies called the interaction “consensual encounters.” Health workers hadn’t arrived at the riverbed to begin work when the sheriff’s deputies began moving through the camp.
Within an hour Carter had reconvened attorneys at a fold-up table by the Honda Center where he has held impromptu conferences for the last two days.
Brooke Weitzman, one of the attorneys representing several homeless people, said “the county’s tactic has 100 percent changed” and questioned why health care workers weren’t taking the lead.
Page said Wednesday morning the issue essentially was a scheduling oversight. Health workers were set to start at 9 a.m., because they had worked late the night before. He disagreed that there was any tension between deputies and homeless people.
Carter immediately expressed dissatisfaction with what happened.
“They [health care workers] are on site when we start. I don’t care if they’re sleepy,” Carter said, banging his fist on the plastic table. “I’m not happy.”
Carter ordered the county to have health care workers on-site by 7:30 a.m. Thursday.
Page immediately called Sheriff’s officials and told them to cease their encounters with people and allow health care workers to take the lead.
Carter, who had walked away from the table, returned after a few minutes, apologizing for his temper.
“The message is how humanely we’re doing this,” Carter said. “This is a minor thing that can be straightened out.”
But the judge’s anger grew when he returned in the evening, for a 7 p.m. conference with attorneys in the pitch dark, near Angel Stadium’s iconic A-shaped sign.
Wednesday night Page raised questions about the time and location of the judge’s meeting with attorneys for the county and homeless people, noting that at 7 p.m. the riverbed was dark and, he said, unsafe for his attorneys.
Carter pointed to the two U.S. marshals accompanying him, and the two sheriff’s deputies who escorted county officials.
“It’s unsafe to be meeting in the dark. I think this is a reckless idea,” Page said.
Carter said he decided to hold the meeting later in the day to give the county more time to book motel rooms.
“This was a favor to you, don’t forget that,” Carter said.
Carter became agitated when Page pressed the issue.
“I’m going to get right in your face now. The first night, I was hearing you couldn’t fulfill your obligations … My favor to you was to give you a chance before I shut you down,” Carter said. “So I thought you were going to work through the night and get [motel] rooms, so I scheduled for 7 o’clock.”
Carter brought attorneys for both sides together as part of a lawsuit by seven homeless people who sued the county Jan. 29 alleging efforts by the county and three cities to clear the riverbed violated their civil rights. The attorneys worked out a plan and Carter, who is overseeing the work, has been at the riverbed between regular court work, everyday.
Carter held another informal, stand up meeting with the lawyers about 6 p.m. Thursday — this time in the Angels Stadium parking lot, next to the iconic “A.”
Carter said he liked the way the eviction progress was going and said the county was “doing a great job.” But he said he wanted to make sure people didn’t get lost in the shuffle.
“We don’t want to leave anyone behind — we did that in Vietnam,” said Carter, a Marine veteran who fought and was injured at the 1968 battle of Khe Sanh.
He also said he liked the fact the riverbed eviction area was accessible to volunteers and the media. “Normally this would be chained off and the press would be over there and think you’re up to no good.”
While county lawyers didn’t have updated numbers Thursday night on how many people were moved into motel rooms during the day, they offered to get it for him. But Carter said “that’s okay, don’t worry about it. We’ll get them tomorrow morning.”
County spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig said in an email later Thursday night that 74 people were housed in motel rooms Thursday and eight were”connected with other shelter.” That brings the total since Feb. 13 to 498 in motels and 15 in shelters.
After telling lawyers from both sides and volunteers to go home and “get some sleep,” a homeless couple was brought to Carter’s attention by a volunteer.
The man said the county had given them a ride to a motel, but the motel wouldn’t allow them to stay and told them “you’re going to cause trouble.” The man told the judge his girlfriend had schizophrenia and she needed a place to feel comfortable. The couple was about to leave the Angel stadium parking lot but Carter told county officials, volunteers and Weitzman that the man and woman could sleep in the remaining part of the camp south of Orangewood Avenue.
“Get them something warm … there’s plenty of tarps down there,” Carter said, pointing to the cleared out section of the camp, which had piles of tarps, blankets and broken down tents.
County officials, under pressure from Carter, have worked for three days to clear the longstanding encampment on the north end of the river, with plans to move south section-by-section.
The judge has been largely complimentary of the county’s efforts. On Tuesday alone, the county reported it housed 180 people in motel rooms, bringing the total to 424 people since last week.
When health care and social workers arrived at 9 a.m. Wednesday, just a smattering of homeless people remained in the camp, some who were awaiting motel placements that fell through the night before and others who were still unsure where they would go. Some had already been placed in housing but returned to collect belongings.
At least 40 people, many from other parts of the riverbed, lined up for additional services, as public works crews began clearing the abandoned debris.
The only person arrested that morning was Shauib, the homeless veteran. According to Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun, Shuaib was detained for “providing false information to a peace officer,” and upon further questioning the deputy found two outstanding warrants for drug charges. Shuaib was taken into custody.
Weitzman said Shuaib provided his nickname rather than his legal name when approached by the deputy, but gave his legal name once he understood he was detained.
Shuaib had prior charges for possession of drug paraphernalia but missed a court appearance weeks ago because he couldn’t arrange for transportation to courthouse, she said. The warrant was for the missed court appearance, and he was arrested just as his ride to the courthouse arrived.
Officials and homeless advocates said they had no estimate of how many homeless people remained on the riverbed to be helped. Because many tents still are standing, it’s unclear which are empty and which are occupied.
By sundown, the northeast end of the riverbed was nearly empty, with a dozen tents still in place, many marked with an orange “X” to indicate they are empty. County workers and sheriff’s deputies moved to the southern end of the river.
Page speculated the county will have cleared all people from the encampments by the end of Friday. Clean-up efforts could last months.
There still are many unanswered questions. After the county clears the riverbed, it will have to figure out what to do with the hundreds of people housed in motels. Motel stays are to last a minimum of 30 days.
Several people have complained that motel owners are removing refrigerators, televisions, shower curtains and bedding from rooms.
Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, who represent disabled homeless clients from the riverbed in a separate case, filed a request Tuesday for the judge to reimpose a temporary restraining order on the county, citing a variety of issues with the motels.
Many people do not have telephones in their motel rooms or access to a mobile phone, according to the court filing.
The court filing also claims the county began evicting people placed in motels in January to avoid forming a landlord-tenant relationship, which would begin after someone stays at a motel for more than 30 days.
Meanwhile, advocates for the homeless, who ran a resource tent dubbed “Camp Hope” on the northern riverbank, raised concerns about the closure of the northeast riverbed, where the only bathroom facilities are located.
They asked for portable bathrooms to be placed on the riverbed for the remaining population.
“I can’t. I’ll get fired if I do that,” Page said to Carter during Wednesday night’s hearing. County supervisors and Anaheim city officials have turned down requests by advocates in the past for portable restrooms.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” Carter said, adding he understood officials want to avoid attracting more people to the area. “That way you’re off the hook … I’ll be the cover for that.”
Carter authorized the group to bring two portable restrooms to be on the riverbed Thursday.
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