Santa Ana Wants Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel Added to Homeless Lawsuit

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

The Plaza of Flags homeless camp in the Santa Ana Civic Center, which is scheduled to be cleared out starting April 2. Photo taken March 30, 2018.

The Santa Ana City Council voted 5-1 Tuesday to ask a federal judge to expand a homelessness lawsuit, adding three Orange County cities that recently rejected shelter proposals.

The move had been openly discussed for weeks, with Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and other council members saying they want to bring other Orange County cities into an ongoing lawsuit being presided over by U.S. District Judge David O. Carter.

Santa Ana council members and residents were furious last month when Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach rejected proposed homeless shelter sites.

They said the cities supported a double standard: It’s okay to put shelters near poor kids in Santa Ana but not near kids from wealthier families.

During their closed session Tuesday, the City Council voted to have the city’s attorneys file court paperwork against Orange County and the three cities as part of an earlier federal lawsuit about homelessness that was filed against the city last August. Carter presided over that case as well as the separate, ongoing case. Although the earlier case was settled, the judge continues to have jurisdiction over it.

The paperwork, known as a “cross-complaint,” initiates a lawsuit against other people or groups that aren’t part of an existing lawsuit, regarding “the same events that gave rise to the original lawsuit,” according to an online legal dictionary from Cornell University.

Asked via text message Wednesday whether the move would add the three cities as defendants in the case, Councilman Vicente Sarmiento replied it would be a “cross claim [against the] county as well.”

It’s unclear when the city will be filing the complaint. City officials declined to say Wednesday.

The council’s 5-to-1 vote in closed session “authorized the filing of a complaint against the County of Orange and the cities that opposed the siting of homeless resources in their cities after the County of Orange decided to place shelters in those cities and later rescinded that decision,” said the city’s public report about the closed session. It was read aloud during open session by Assistant City Attorney John Funk.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez was the no vote and Councilman Sal Tinajero was not present.

“In dissenting, Council member Martinez expressed that she preferred legal action against all cities in Orange County,” Funk said in his report.

“In this matter, the council also directed that the mayor send a demand letter to all other cities,” he said.

The demand letters to the other cities, seeking financial reimbursement over homelessness and the cities’ cooperation with Carter’s call for them to step up with services, were ordered by the council two weeks earlier, on April 3. After a further review by the council on Tuesday, they “will hopefully be sent out this week,” Councilwoman Michele Martinez said via text message.

City Manager Raul Godinez’ office has declined to provide a copy of the demand letter language, saying it is in draft form.

Carter, the federal judge, has called on city and county officials to work together collaboratively to find expanded shelter capacity for abused women, people with severe mentally illnesses, and other homeless people as the county’s existing system is overcrowded.

At Carter’s request, the mayors of South Orange County cities are meeting Thursday to try to pick one or more locations for new emergency homeless shelter beds in their cities. If they don’t find a location for a new shelter, Carter said he would “follow the law” in the U.S. 9th Circuit’s Jones decision and ban cities from enforcing anti-camping laws against homeless people until adequate shelter capacity was available.

Carter has cautioned that if officials turn it into a traditional adversarial court case – which he said they have the ability to do – it would erode the recent momentum towards addressing homelessness.

The judge also has said Santa Ana has done its share to host emergency homeless shelters and services, and it’s time for other cities in Orange County to step up.

During hearings on March 17 and April 3, Carter said other cities have been “dumping” homeless people in Santa Ana and it must stop.

At the March 17 hearing, the judge told top officials from cities across the county that he would seek a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and convene a grand jury if it happens again. He pointed out a federal prosecutor was at the hearing, which was held at the Santa Ana City Council chambers.

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