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An agreement brokered by a federal judge to provide motel rooms to the 400 homeless people estimated to still be living next to the Santa Ana River received its final approval Thursday, with unanimous votes from the county Board of Supervisors to ratify and implement the agreement.

The agreement was the result of two straight days of morning-to-night pressure from U.S. District Judge David O. Carter for the county and attorneys for homeless people to quickly find a solution, after years of slow action in dealing with the growing number of homeless living along the riverbed.

Carter acted in response to a lawsuit challenging the county’s evictions of homeless people from the riverbed. He temporarily halted the evictions, and told the county he would allow them to clear the riverbed starting Tuesday morning – but only if they worked with the homeless people’s attorneys to find shelter for the people living there.

Under the agreement, the county will provide motel rooms for at least 30 days to those now living along the riverbed. People at the riverbed will have a choice of moving to a motel, leaving the riverbed, or facing arrest if they stay after the 9 a.m. Tuesday deadline.

Additionally, as part of the court-brokered deal, the county is working to add separate shelter for 300 to 400 people by erecting tents or other structures on county land and adding beds at existing shelters. The new space potentially could house people after their 30 days in motels.

“This is a new era, a new period in our county’s history,” supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do, who publicly put forward the offer of 700 to 800 additional beds, said at a special supervisors’ meeting Thursday on the issue. Do said he appreciated the “active participation” of city officials to help find solutions in recent days, including cities that were not part of the lawsuit, like Santa Ana.

The final step in adopting the agreement was its approval by the Board of Supervisors, who held the special meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday.

After talking in closed session for about 30 minutes, the supervisors came into the public chambers and their lead attorney, Leon Page, announced the motel and shelter agreement was approved on a 5-0 vote.

The supervisors then heard public comments, offered their own thoughts, and voted unanimously again to direct county staff to take a series of actions to implement the agreement.

Both homeless advocates and county supervisors expressed happiness with the deal.

“We’re all really excited” about what’s happening, said Brooke Weitzman, one of the lead attorneys for homeless people in the lawsuit that led to the agreement.

While there will be some trial and error when it comes to motels, Weitzman said, “we’re working really closely with the county. We’re all looking for solutions right now.”

“The end result is that the county is [going to] get to do the maintenance [to the riverbed] they wanted, and we’re gonna have” women and veteran’s services provided and “400 people who were a little bit forgotten” will be in motels, receive food, and get health evaluations.

“I’m very proud of this,” said Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who attended the court proceedings Tuesday and walked the riverbed camp with Carter Wednesday morning.

“I’m very proud that Judge Carter…has made it possible for actually the county to advance the interests that heretofore we haven’t be able to with…folks who need our help.”

While it’s unclear where exactly people will go after 30 days, the judge has made clear “no one is getting dumped” after 30 days, said Weitzman. Carter has said he will continue to monitor the riverbed evictions and shelter situation, and has asked the county to find a long-term solution.

In response to the judge’s pressure, county officials are preparing to quickly expand the bed capacity at the Kraemer shelter in Anaheim and WISEPlace women’s shelter in Santa Ana, as well as set up tents on county-owned land in Anaheim, Orange, and possibly Santa Ana.

The supervisors did not publicly give direction about which county properties would be used for tents or other temporary shelter after the 30-day motel period expires. But in court this week, Do identified the four potential properties as:

  • The existing Bridges at Kraemer shelter in Anaheim (adding 32 beds indoors and 60 temporary shelter beds in the parking lot),
  • WISEPlace women’s shelter in Santa Ana (adding 100 beds indoors),
  • A county public works yard lot in Orange across the riverbed from the ARTIC transportation center (adding tents or other temporary shelter),
  • Vacant county land near the Registrar of Voters office on Grand Avenue in Santa Ana (adding tents or other temporary shelter).

Santa Ana City Manager Raul Godinez attended the supervisors’ meeting Thursday to commend the agreement and support the WISEPlace beds, but also urged county officials to avoid using vacant Santa Ana land for temporary shelter.

He also asked that the motel rooms be spread “evenly” throughout Orange County and not just in Santa Ana.

Santa Ana is home to about 10 percent of the county’s residents but already has 40 to 50 percent of the homeless beds, added Councilman Jose Solorio, who supported Godinez’ remarks.

In court Tuesday, Carter commended Santa Ana for hosting more homeless services than other cities in Orange County. The city has “stepped up” and has been bearing the burden in Orange County for many years, the judge said.

County officials didn’t indicate whether the Santa Ana property near the Registrar of Voters was still on the table.

After the meeting, County CEO Frank Kim said the county was using general fund money to pay for the additional beds and services. People will be treated with care and compassion, he said, with officials looking into setting up dividers within large tents to provide privacy for homeless people.

The county already was helping people at the riverbed camp move into motels Wednesday and Thursday, with six people in motels as of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and 10 in the process of being housed, according to county spokeswoman Jen Nentwig.

“These are not technically ‘motel vouchers,’ ” Nentwig wrote in an emailed answer to questions. County public health officials are arranging and buying the motel rooms individually with each person. “Outreach staff call motels to find available rooms and they then transport the individual when the room is booked,” she wrote.

People at the riverbed can start moving into motels as soon as they want, Nentwig added. “People do not need to wait until Tuesday,” when the evictions begin, she said.

It’s also unclear how motel owners are reacting to the county’s efforts to find 400 rooms for homeless people, or how the process is going from their perspective.

Jerry Amante, a former Tustin mayor who leads the countywide hotel and motel owners’ group, the Anaheim/Orange County Hotel & Lodging Association, didn’t return phone messages Thursday seeking comment.

The county action stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Weitzman and fellow attorney Carol Sobel on behalf of seven homeless people and the Orange County Catholic Worker service group. The lawsuit alleged evicting homeless people from the riverbed camp violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, because homeless people would be forced into cities where they’d be subject to arrest for camping or loitering amid a shortage of adequate shelter beds.

The county and city defendants disputed the claims, arguing they had done extensive outreach at the riverbed offering services and there were beds available in existing shelters.

Instead of having both sides argue about facts and the law this week, Carter took a different approach.

At the outset of his hearing Tuesday, the judge questioned if the court’s typical “adversarial system” is best suited to address a homelessness problem that has “overwhelmed” local cities, police, and groups trying to help the poor.

In the adversarial legal system, he said, there’s “finger pointing” and an “all or nothing” mentality. But he said there’s another approach – what Carter called a “solution-oriented process” – and the judge said he would be “nudging” all sides to start a conversation on long-range solutions.

He said that would depend on each side’s ability to turn from the “adversarial positions you’re in…to one of problem solving.”

After intensely questioning county officials and homeless people’s attorneys – and telling them he was ready to stay in court until midnight – the various sides came together and struck the agreement on motels and evictions.

“We [lawyers] were schooled formally to be adversaries,” Spitzer said at Thursday’s board meeting. “I mean, we got our degrees, basically, to argue. And yet Judge Carter changed the entire dynamic.”

There used to be a time when a hand-shake deal meant something, Spitzer added.

“I think this is a handshake good-faith deal,” Spitzer said, adding the judge did this because he knows Do and trusts him to “deliver in good faith what you said would be delivered.”

Spitzer also said it was significant that Carter said, in Spitzer’s paraphrasing, that the judge is “tired of the bureaucratic responses. Those days are over.”

Left unaddressed at the meeting was what would happen to homeless people who decided to leave the riverbed after sheriff’s deputies warned them to leave last month and now are in cities where they’re subject to arrest for camping in public. Anaheim also has an anti-loitering law that makes it a misdemeanor for someone to “annoy” other people while standing or sitting on a public alley, sidewalk, or crosswalk.

“Many have been displaced from the riverbed prior to this most recent agreement, [and] are now in the cities, in Santa Ana and other cities,” said David Duran, an advocate for homeless people, who also thanked the board “for taking positive steps” in implementing the motel agreement.

At the same time, he said, “there’s substantially more that’s left to be done,” adding that people who accept the motel rooms could potentially lose access to personal property and be separated from family.

“There are still hundreds, or thousands, [of homeless people] left that need some attention. They need your help,” Duran said.

Another homeless advocate, R. Joshua Collins, called the agreement “very exciting” during his public comments, but wondered, “why did it take a federal judge” for it to happen?

It’s unclear if Carter will rule on whether some form of expanded shelter must be provided for the thousands of other homeless people who live on the streets of Orange County outside of the riverbed.

A separate lawsuit, filed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, alleges the existing shelter beds are inadequate for homeless people with mental illnesses and other disabilities.

Thus far, Carter hasn’t issued any rulings regarding the constitutional questions presented in the ongoing lawsuits. But he did write in his order temporarily blocking the evictions he was “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.”

Do, the supervisors’ chairman, thanked county staff for their hard work on the agreement, as well as the attorneys who sued the county.

“I have never seen a resolve that I have witnessed in the last few days while we have been in litigation,” Do said. County staff, “together with Judge Carter and opposing counsel” and county counsel, “worked late into the night every day this week.”

The next 30 days will be a period to evaluate the county’s effectiveness and hopefully make adjustments and “work together” to create “a real effective system” for Orange County, Do said.

“I am very glad that this is a very huge first step in that direction.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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