The Legal Aid Society of Orange County Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against the County of Orange on behalf of seven homeless individuals with disabilities, who lawyers say have not been able to access the county’s housing and case management programs.

The lawsuit is the second legal challenge to the county’s efforts to evict hundreds of homeless people living along the Santa Ana River. A lawsuit filed Feb. 1 by the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center resulted in an emergency order late Tuesday night halting the enforcement of anti-camping and trespass laws along the riverbed for five days until U.S. District Judge David Carter holds a hearing on the issue. He will preside over both cases.

The Legal Aid Society said the county has excluded disabled people from its homeless services by failing to accommodate people’s mental and physical disabilities. Homeless people cited in the lawsuit said they were sent to shelters with crowded, noisy conditions that triggered their mental health problems.

“Their disabilities make it nearly impossible for them to live on the city streets or in any emergency shelter or transitional shelter, and they are terrified of leaving the only stable living environment available to them,” the complaint states.

Lili Graham, Director of Litigation at the Legal Aid Society, said the county has not been responsive to efforts by her seven clients to find accommodations for their disabilities.

“Despite weeks of working with the County to seek reasonable solutions for our clients, it was clear that County services are so inadequate that they would only cause further harm to individuals with disabilities,” said Graham.

Graham cited the county’s own survey of the riverbed homeless population, which found 51 percent had a disability, 42 percent had a mental health concern, and 37 percent were victims of domestic violence.

The lawsuit also alleges Orange County has nearly $700 million in unspent funds available to end homelessness. The Legal Aid Society is seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the county from evicting homeless people with disabilities until they modify their services to accommodate the disabled, including “disability appropriate housing.”

The county, through its spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

In a sworn declaration filed Wednesday night in response to the Elder Law Center lawsuit, county CEO Frank Kim said that as of January 1, there were 248 beds total available at the Courtyard Transitional Center in Santa Ana, Kraemer Shelter, Santa Ana Armory and Fullerton Armory.

“It is unfortunate that after seven months of intensive outreach and case management, only 122 of the 300 remaining individuals in the flood channel are engaged in any form of case management,” Kim stated. “The County has transitioned 211 individuals out of the flood channel since July 1, and by doing so, the county has demonstrated that the system of care put in place by the County will work for those willing to engage with it.” 

The county is seeking to limit the court’s emergency order to a section of the riverbed between the I-5 freeway and Taft Avenue/Ball Road. It also is asking for permission to cite people for trespassing on the bottom of the river channel and to prevent people from returning to the riverbed.

Kim stated in his declaration that the court injunction “will have the unintended consequence of interfering with the County’s slow and methodical, gentle and compassionate efforts” to clear the riverbed, connect people to services and reunite them with family members.

In a brief filed Wednesday night, the Elder Law Center said the county’s request is unnecessary because people do not camp on slopes or on the bottom of the river channel.

The Legal Aid Society lawsuit, meanwhile, argues that county efforts to connect homeless individuals with services have failed to work for people with disabilities, citing the experiences of seven riverbed residents.

Sharon Sweat, a 49-year-old woman who has been living at the riverbed for the last 14 years, was a victim of severe abuse and neglect as a child, and was removed from her family home by Child Protective Services, according to the lawsuit.

Sweat also was a victim of sexual assault and domestic violence as an adult. She suffers from severe depression, anxiety, memory loss, insomnia, flashbacks, paranoia and other symptoms, which worsen when she’s under stress, the lawsuit states.

Sweat and four other plaintiffs in the lawsuit submitted written requests for accommodation and underwent assessments with Health Care Agency staff. According to the lawsuit, “although Plaintiffs informed the County that shelters and transitional housing were not appropriate for their disabilities, the first and often only option the county offered Plaintiffs was shelters.”

Sweat says in the complaint that she was pushed by county health care workers to go to the Courtyard Center in Santa Ana, an open-air bus terminal that frequently houses more than 400 people, despite raising concerns and filing a request about her disability.

Sweat said county workers did not explain to her the conditions at the Courtyard Center and did not ask if she had any concerns about the shelter or about her disability.

“Instead, HCA [the Health Care Agency] pushed Sweat to go to the Courtyard the very next day. When Sweat stated ‘I can’t do this right now,’ HCA staff asked if she was ‘refusing services,’” the complaint states.

The only accommodation Sweat was given was an extra day to pack her things, the complaint states. Sweat declined to go to the Courtyard Center and asked for other accommodations, but has not heard back from the county.

The lawsuit claims the assessment conducted by county mental health workers “does not include any questions about the person’s background, the trauma they have experienced, the nature of their disabilities, or even an attempt to create a private space to conduct the assessment,” such as a trailer or tent.

In other instances, the assessments were conducted by Sheriff’s personnel or health care workers flanked by a large number of officers, frightening many people with mental health issues, the lawsuit said.

“The assessments discriminate against people with disabilities because it screens them out of the Program by deeming them ‘service resistant’” or by giving them a lower score on a vulnerability index, making them ineligible for higher levels of housing assistance, the complaint states.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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