Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies, along with officers from the probation and parole departments, stepped up eviction efforts along the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment Thursday, checking for people with outstanding warrants.
At the same time, Brooke Weitzman, an attorney who filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to stop the county’s riverbed eviction, asked a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order to halt the evictions. She said she told the county Wednesday she planned to seek the restraining order and the increased law enforcement activity was the County’s response.
“They (the county) did inform us that they opposed it,” Weitzman said. “Unfortunately, as soon as they were informed we were going to request this order, it seems the county’s response was to escalate the enforcement on the riverbed — stopping people without probable cause, detaining them.”
“When faced with the possibility that we would be filing today (Thursday) for a temporary restraining order,” she said, “the county’s response was to increase the criminalization of our county’s most vulnerable population.”
Sheriff’s department spokeswoman Carrie Braun acknowledged in a phone interview Thursday “today is the first day we had officers from probation and parole out with our deputies.”
But Friday Braun said “our action in bringing probation and parole yesterday was completely unrelated to the filing of the TRO (temporary restraining order). In prior engagements … we’ve had probation and parole with us numerous times before … it’s just the first time they’ve been down there since … Jan. 22 (when the trail was closed).”
Braun said the deputies aren’t enforcing the no trespassing law and are asking for “voluntary compliance” from homeless people to pack up their camps and move out.
“I think we’ll see an increased enforcement of criminal activity within the encampment … not including trespassing,” Braun said. “There is a criminal element that needs to be addressed and the deputies are taking an active posture in addressing that, while respecting the Constitutional rights of every individual out there and recognizing there are still individuals interested in service.”
Sheriff’s deputies began the eviction and walked tent-to-tent Jan. 22 telling everyone they needed to start packing up their camps and leaving, but gave no deadline. One deputy that day said he expected it to take several weeks before the area is clear. There were 500 or more people living along the riverbed when the evictions began. County officials don’t have a specific count, but a number of homeless people have left.
Braun said the enforcement will continue.
The southern portion of the camp that runs roughly from Angel stadium to the 5 freeway, along the 57 freeway, was bustling Thursday with people packing up and hauling off their belongings on bicycles. What they couldn’t fit on their bikes was piled up for county contractor cleanup crews to throw in the back of trucks.
One cushion had a message for the County written with a marker on it: “Fuck your sorry ass bullshit.”
Two makeshift signs also were put up, facing the bike trail. One read: “You are more concerned with the trash than you are a human being. So what does that make you!!!”
Another read, “You have somewhere for the trash to go, but nowhere for us to go.”
The northern part of the camp, near the area known as “Camp Hope,” was relatively calm and didn’t have nearly as many Sheriff’s deputies roaming the riverbank. camp. That portion of the camp runs along the east bank of the river from Katella Avenue to Ball/Taft Roads.
Steve Manning, communications director for the homeless advocate-run Camp Hope, said the organization helped reach out to the news media, which showed up en force Jan. 22 to cover the beginning of the eviction.
Manning said Camp Hope’s website was set up to “get the truth out,” and to tell the stories of homeless people who stop at the tent. The camp is on Katella Avenue, near the Honda Center across from the Sheriff’s Department shooting range. Intermittent gunfire could be heard Thursday afternoon while Manning was being interviewed by Voice of OC.
“Criminalizing us is a real issue. These people are not bad people. Of course there’s some bad apples, like with every community,” Manning said. “Just remember it could happen to you. You’re one day away from stuff going bad.”
A homeless man who didn’t want to be named said the encampment has seen a big increase in the presence of sheriff deputies since Jan. 22.
“The sheriff’s (deputies) are rolling through pretty hard, checking warrants,” he said.
Since Jan. 22, many of the homeless have said they don’t know where to go.
One young man, who didn’t want to be identified, was in a rush to get out of the riverbed before deputies rolled their cruisers south on the riverbed bike trail.
“I don’t know where I’m going to go, but I can’t stay here,” he said, showing Voice of OC a wadded up handful of tickets he had received over the past couple months, but didn’t specify what they were for.
Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange also are named in the lawsuit because they have anti-camping ordinances, along with ordinances that make it illegal to have property on the streets.
Nearly every OC city has similar ordinances.
Weitzman’s more than 400 page request for the temporary restraining order includes sworn declarations from homeless people camping on the riverbed.
“Each of the Defendants (the county and cities named in the lawsuit) 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 request states.
“These laws are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment because they punish the homeless Plaintiffs for unavoidable behaviors such as using sleeping bags, tents and sleeping outside.”
The decision on whether to grant the restraining order now rests with U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, who is presiding over the lawsuit. County and city officials have 24 hours, or until around 5 p.m. Friday, to file a response in court.
Weitzman successfully sued the County last year over its seizure of property belonging to homeless people living along the riverbed. It led to a federal court order that requires county officials to give 24 hours’ written notice before seizing property along the riverbed, store it at a nearby location, and make it readily-accessible during normal business hours.
Braun said if a person on the riverbed has an outstanding warrant and is arrested, the County will store their property for 90 days. After that, it will be thrown out.
There were rumors flying up and down the riverbed Thursday that suggested sheriff’s deputies were telling people they had until Friday to leave.
Braun clarified there isn’t a deadline.
“As of Jan. 22 anyone who is encamped within the project area is violating trespass laws. Deputies are not providing any additional information to the individuals,” Braun said. “They’re requesting for them to voluntarily comply … no official date has been set as to when people will be required to have left, as long as the county is seeing reasonable progress from the individuals who are encamped there.”
According to a late Thursday news release from County spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig, about 62 tons of debris and 400 pounds of “human waste” was removed from Jan. 22 to Jan. 26. Moreover, 34 people were arrested between Jan. 22 and Feb. 1.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs in Monday’s lawsuit, Carol Sobel, won a major federal appeals court ruling, known as the Jones decision, that is at the center of the Orange County lawsuit.
In the Jones ruling, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in 2006 that the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the U.S. Constitution “prohibits the City [of Los Angeles] from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter in the City of Los Angeles.”
Regarding the Orange County evictions, Weitzman said the county government isn’t offering viable options where people can go, and said the cities in the lawsuit, among many others in OC, have “criminalized” being homeless with anti-camping and anti-loitering ordinances. She said the riverbed camp is the last place they can go in the county.
“Basically, we’re seeing the reasons why we filed the case, these people are very scared … they have nowhere else to go. If they try to leave, they can’t sleep in the cities because of the anti-camping and anti-loitering laws … they can potentially be arrested,” Weitzman said. “The county has made it clear it’s their intention to continue with that.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.