Federal Judge Sets June 13 Deadline for OC Cities to ID New Shelter Sites

SPENCER CUSTODIO, Voice of OC

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter speaks with county attorneys and lawyers representing the homeless people during an unorthodox court hearing in the Honda Center parking lot near the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp Feb. 20, 2018.

Orange County cities have a June 13 deadline to identify locations for three new homeless emergency shelters, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter said Friday.

Among other issues, he pointed to Santa Ana and Anaheim residents and businesses he said are grappling with hundreds of homeless people who are on the streets due to a shelter shortage.

“I want sites. S. I. T. E. S. That spells ‘sites,’ ” Carter told county and city officials during a meeting in open court Friday.

Carter, who is presiding over a federal civil rights lawsuit regarding homeless people, scheduled a June 13 meeting with city officials from across Orange County. He called it a “big tent” meeting and said it would be his last.

At that meeting, the judge said he wanted local officials to identify locations for three shelters, or “emergency intakes,” dispersed among three county zones – one in south county, one along the coastal cities from Newport Beach north and central inland cities, and the third in inland north county. The zones are known as “service planning areas.”

“I’m not dictating to south or central or north [county] what they look like,” Carter said. But, he said, they need to be “dispersed” among the three zones.

The three “service planning areas” for homeless services. (Image by County of Orange.)

Carter got city officials to commit to finding new shelter locations during an April 3 court meeting, about 10 weeks before the June 13 deadline.

The judge said cities need to commit to specific dates for action, and that on June 13 he plans to ask the city officials if they found a site. If they respond that they’re still “studying” it, Carter said, he’ll know “people are playing with it” because they’ve “had plenty of time.”

“I don’t want to hear about what committees are going to do,” Carter said. “I don’t want to hear about you forming coalitions. I want sites. S. I. T. E. S.”

If the cities don’t do that, Carter said, “then I’ll know. I’ll know exactly what the court needs to do.”

Pointing to a federal appeals court ruling known as the Jones decision, Carter has repeatedly said he would consider limiting cities’ ability to enforce anti-camping and loitering laws against homeless people if additional shelter beds aren’t identified.

The Jones decision found the government cannot “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless,” such as sleeping on public sidewalks, when there is a shortage of adequate shelter beds.

On Friday, Carter said the anti-camping and loitering laws could “potentially be a good thing,” if properly enforced, to push homeless people who don’t want services into services.

“But they’re not a good thing if they criminalize [homeless people] by virtue of being homeless,” Carter said of these laws. That would “cause the court to act.”

Carter said he nearly issued a restraining order when the county had women sleep on the men’s side of a shelter due to overcrowding. But, he said, he didn’t do so because county CEO Frank Kim and County Counsel Leon Page resolved the issue in “10 minutes” after speaking with Carter on the phone at 10 p.m. on a Friday night.

The court would have issued the restraining order “that evening,” Carter said, commending both men.

The judge suggested he’d hold off issuing a restraining order, or TRO, against anti-camping and loitering enforcement as long as he sees “good faith” efforts by local officials, as well as timelines for action.

“It would have been easy to issue a TRO three months ago,” Carter said. “That’s the easy part to do. The hard part,” he said, is to build a system to address homelessness.

If Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, the chief lawyers for homeless people, “see hope” in the building of an infrastructure to help people get off the streets, Carter said he doesn’t think they would request a restraining order.

But if such a restraining order request is made, Carter wondered aloud if the two lawyers would have it apply countywide or divide it into different regions.

Since January, Carter has presided over the federal civil rights lawsuit over evictions of hundreds of homeless people from the Santa Ana riverbed, which was filed by Weitzman and Sobel on behalf of the Orange County Catholic Worker.

About 700 people moved from the riverbed to motels for up to 30-day stays from February to March. But the county shelter system was expanded enough to shelter only a portion of that population. Since the motel stays ended, hundreds of homeless people have ended up unsheltered again, according to county data.

Carter and Santa Ana officials have said many former riverbed residents have gone to the city’s streets, prompting complaints from city officials, residents, and businesses.

“I’ve become very concerned about the impact on Santa Ana and Anaheim. Both of these cities [have been] dramatically impacted,” Carter said Friday.

Santa Ana officials in late March counted 1,030 unsheltered homeless people in the city, up from 466 in the county’s Santa Ana count the prior year.

Separately from the unsheltered homeless people, the county’s Courtyard emergency shelter in an abandoned bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana, currently has about 400 people each night. Carter has said the county has been “cramming” people into the already-full shelter.

“I think it should be 380 [people] or less,” Carter said Friday of the Courtyard, calling the shelter “over capacity.”

He cited the same limit at a March 17 meeting with county and city officials, calling efforts to put more than 380 people there “nonsense.”

Carter repeatedly has emphasized Santa Ana for decades has done more than its fair share to host homeless shelters and services, and that he expects other cities to step up with providing shelter. Carter also has commended Anaheim and Fullerton for hosting existing shelters as well.

Carter repeatedly has called on officials in other cities to find shelter for homeless people while longer-term housing solutions are pursued. He held two previous court meetings with city officials from across the county, on March 17 and April 3.

During Friday’s court meeting, Carter scheduled an early-morning tour June 5 with top city and county officials to witness the effects of the Santa Ana armory shelter on nearby residents and businesses. Among those he invited were county CEO Frank Kim, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido, and Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait.

Carter said he wanted them to come with him to the Santa Ana armory at 5:30 a.m. to see people come “streaming out” of that armory “into Hispanic residential neighborhoods, just across the street.” That community, including small businesses that can’t afford security guards, are “inundated,” he said.

Then, Carter said, he wants them to see a bus pull up and bring the homeless people to the Santa Ana Civic Center, where they walk into a “wonderful” retail area and “inundate” that area.

“Now why would the court [reward] the other cities [that] haven’t stepped up” and shown the courage of supervisors’ Chairman Andrew Do and the city of Santa Ana, in hosting the Courtyard and armory shelters.

“I’m not going to reward that,” Carter said of the other cities. “So I haven’t lost patience yet. But there are [some] deadlines now.”

Carter also described July 16 as a “hard deadline” for when the county’s two armory shelters are expected to close after a 90-day extension from their original April 15 scheduled closure.

Referring to July 16 as a “drop dead date,” Carter said the people staying at the armories need to be accommodated when the armories close.

“Those are people actually seeking help,” the judge said of homeless people staying at the armories. “They don’t want to be sleeping” in people’s backyards, “and you need to accommodate them,” he told city and county officials.

The two armories – in Santa Ana and Fullerton – have a total capacity of about 400 people.

Carter called future spending on the armories “a ridiculous expenditure on the county’s part. It doesn’t get people off the street…It just dumps people into our neighborhoods.”

Another issue discussed during Friday’s meeting was Santa Ana’s stalled request to add the rest of the cities in Orange County to the federal case. The agencies sued so far are the county government and the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Orange, and Costa Mesa.

In late April, Santa Ana tried to add all Orange County cities to the federal suit, but the city abruptly put that effort on hold early in May. Santa Ana has not served the paperwork on any city not currently involved in the case, besides Tustin.

Carter acknowledged other cities are upset about the filing, and said Pulido, the Santa Ana mayor, said the filing was “only a placeholder” to grant jurisdiction to the court.

On Friday, Carter also said county officials had provided false information about when the armory shelters were originally closing for the season. County officials had said the final date would be April 15, though Carter said during the April 3 hearing that he learned the last day was actually several days earlier, on April 7, by talking with the National Guard official in charge.

“That was a fiction,” Carter said of the original closing date. “Nobody drove down and talked to the sergeant in charge.”

“Your information was bad,” he told county officials. “Don’t give me bad information in the future.”

Carter also took issue with the name county officials often use for the three homeless zones, or “service planning areas,” which are known as “SPAs” for short. County officials pronounce it the same way as “spa” resorts. Carter called it a “ridiculous term,” saying the homeless services are not luxurious.

During the ongoing court case, Carter has set aside many typical court procedures, saying he believes “good faith” collaboration on solutions would be most productive, rather than the usual adversarial litigation approach. His approach has included engaging in informal court sessions and private conversations with local officials, homeless people, service providers, and attorneys.

Carter responded Friday to pushback about it, saying those informal discussions have been very valuable.

“I think it’s been extraordinarily helpful,” Carter said of calls he’s received from mayors and members of the county Board of Supervisors. He said he wants to be sure those informal conversation channels are still in place.

Carter said he’s had informal discussions with police chiefs, the mayors of Santa Ana, Anaheim, Buena Park and Fullerton. “Remember – they called me. I didn’t initially call them,” Carter said.

If anybody changes their view of the informal conversations, Carter said he needs to know it, and the case will be very different. It will be “very, very formal,” he said.

The informal conversations “led to the court’s patience, by the way.” he said. “It would have been easy to issue a [restraining order] three months ago. That’s the easy part to do. The hard part” is to build a system.

Mentioning Page, the county’s top attorney, Carter said he wanted to continue having informal conversations, and “I just want to make sure I’ve got that continuing [permission].”

Carter later turned to Page and said it was important to continue having informal discussions.

“Okay,” Page said.

Carter also asked attorneys for Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Orange if he has permission to speak with their high-ranking police officials who attended the meeting. “Yes, your honor,” the attorneys replied.

He also asked attorneys for Santa Ana and the county if he has their permission to speak with Pulido, the mayor, and Do, the supervisors’ chairman. The attorneys said yes.

Carter and Page had clashed previously. During riverbed evictions in February, the judge angrily reprimanded Page for failing to prevent a mix-up that allowed sheriff’s deputies to move into a homeless encampment before county health workers arrived to offer homeless people housing and services.

And Carter grew upset after Page said it was unsafe and “reckless” for Carter to have attorneys meet in the dark along the riverbed camp for a 7 p.m. court meeting, where they were accompanied by two U.S. marshals and two sheriff’s deputies.

The dynamic was warmer at Friday’s court meeting. As Carter was inviting county and city officials on the early-morning tour, he extended the invitation to Page.

“Bring Leon along. I miss him,” Carter said, smiling. Page let out a loud laugh from the audience.

Attorneys for homeless people have credited Page’s lawyer team in recent days with collaborating to address problems as they’ve arisen.

Earlier this week, on Wednesday and Thursday, the county required at least 30 people to leave the Baymont Inn & Suites in Anaheim, where the county had been providing mental health beds through a contractor, Telecare Corp.

About 85 people remained at the Baymont motel, after the 30 people were required to leave said county spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig.

Most of the people required to leave Baymont have moved to a residential program – run by the nonprofit Illumination Foundation under a county contract – that advocates say is providing much better care than people were receiving at Baymont.

Weitzman, the lead attorney for homeless people, said of the Illumination Foundation program: “It sounds like they intend to have all the things a shelter should have,” including private spaces for people, mental health services, transportation to and from appointments, and accommodations for partners, service animals and pets.

“We are still hopeful that there will be progress and that cities are working with the county on solutions,” Weitzman said in a text message Friday evening.

“We are still disappointed at the low quality of care at the Baymont and the way in which reassessments seem to be done only to move people out of [the mental health program] rather than into it leaving many paid but empty rooms. And we continue to be worried about the impending downloads from temporary options with no available beds in overcrowded shelters,” she added.

“It does sound like many of the cities are focused on solutions and we all agree that ending homelessness in our communities is better than simply ending criminalization.”

“I think that [Carter’s] comments today will expedite” the process of finding new shelter sites, Pulido told Voice of OC after Friday’s court meeting. He said he expects officials will be “very active” over the next 45 days.

Earlier in the day, when Carter was meeting privately with local officials, Pulido said it was “a rough discussion.”

Carter “looked a lot of people straight in the eye,” Pulido said, without explaining further. The discussion included Pulido, Anaheim Mayor Pro Tem Jose Moreno, county Health Care Agency Director Richard Sanchez, and high-ranking police officials from Anaheim and Santa Ana.

Carter expressed optimism during the open sessions that officials would rise to the occasion and expand shelter, services, and long-term housing. He said he has “a lot of hope” for south county.

“There’s an opportunity here to build infrastructure that’s never been built before,” Carter said of the overall effort.

If local officials and community members in Orange County can “get a thousand people off the street,” Carter said, he’d rather have that than issuing a restraining order against cities that 20 years from now sits on a “bookshelf.”

There is a “need for emergency intakes,” Carter said, referring to shelters. He added: “Long-term supportive housing makes tremendous sense,” calling it “the golden pot at the end of the rainbow.”

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