Five South Orange County Cities Sued for Lack of Homeless Shelters

JESSICA RUIZ, Voice of OC

A homeless man walks down a street in San Clemente during the 2019 point in time count.

Five South Orange County cities will head to Federal court after a lawsuit filed by attorneys alleged dumping of homeless people and blamed the region’s lack of shelters.

The federal lawsuit filed Wednesday evening is similar to one against the County, which is overseen by Judge David O. Carter, who has put pressure on various cities and service provider groups to address the growing homeless crisis.

“What caused this was the County saying, at the hearing in October, that they would not settle the case until we had named the South County cities,” Carol Sobel said Thursday. She is an attorney on both the new case and the existing case.

Sobel said South County cities’ opposition to past attempts to build homeless shelters in the region also led to the suit.

“They really left us no choice but to bring this lawsuit,” Sobel said.

The new lawsuit by Sobel and attorney Brooke Weitzman is similar to one they filed in January 2018 against the County, Costa Mesa, Orange and Anaheim. It was filed when county officials, at the direction of County Supervisors, began clearing out the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampment.

Sobel and Weitzman said the moves criminalized the homeless because the lack of shelter beds at the time, coupled with anti-camping ordinances, would result in numerous tickets and eventually jail time.

The two attorneys now allege South County cities, including Irvine, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, are using similar policies to criminalize the homeless there.

Irvine Mayor Don Wagner said, while he hasn’t yet had a chance to read through the 50-page court filing, he’s disappointed it has come down to a lawsuit.

“I will say I’m a little disappointed because progress is being made in Irvine. I’d rather there be negotiations on solutions rather than lawsuits picking off a couple cities at a time,” Wagner said.  

“We got a fair amount of transitional housing and we’re increasing our stock. The other thing is, our Point in Time Count (biennial homeless headcount), we don’t know what it is after the most recent survey, “ Wagner said, adding the 2019 count for Irvine is believed to be lower than 2017. “So I think significant progress is being made in Irvine.”

While North County cities are now adding more shelters after agreeing to a series of court-enforceable agreements requiring more beds, South County cities have yet to build a shelter similar to the ones in North and Central County.

“You need to at least get some beds. The only beds right now are at the Laguna Beach facility and what’s happening is everybody is dumping their people there,” Sobel said.

According to the lawsuit, “the Alternative Sleep Location (ASL) in Laguna Beach is the only low-barrier shelter in South County. It is a very small shelter, with a capacity of 45 beds in trailers, open only at night.”

Low-barrier typically means walk-ins are allowed.

The lawsuit claims more than half of the people who stayed at the Laguna Beach shelter were not from the city.

“According to Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data, of 401 people who stayed at the ASL and who provided a ‘last known permanent address,’ more than half of these individuals reported an address in Orange County but outside of Laguna Beach. Only 11 percent of the guests reported a last known address in the City,” reads the filing.

Sobel also said the cities named in the lawsuit have been dropping people off at The Courtyard shelter in Downtown Santa Ana, even though Carter told cities to stop that last year.

“That is what’s happening in San Juan (Capistrano), San Clemente and those cities, yes,” Sobel said. “Judge Carter has made that clear. That is not a solution.”

One of the plaintiffs, Bruce Stroebel, grew up in Irvine and lost his family home after it was sold when his mother died, according to the lawsuit. He has to sleep outside since there’s no shelter in the area.

“When it rains, he seeks shelter under a building overhang. He has a congenital heart defect that makes it hard for him to breathe and limits his mobility,” reads the lawsuit. “Even if he could get into the Courtyard, he would not have anyone to help him with his physical mobility issues and could not navigate the travel from there to his doctor’s appointments.”

In court hearings last year, Carter repeatedly said he wants to see a centrally-located South County “intake center” for homeless people. This would provide a place for local law enforcement in the region to take homeless people, rather than tying up their time driving to North County, the judge has said.

South county mayors previously proposed a shelter at a remote location outside their cities’ boundaries: Silverado Elementary School in the county’s rural canyons. But it was rejected for a number of reasons, including being too far from medical and social services.

Another possibility is South County cities chipping in financially for the creation of shelter beds elsewhere, an approach used by the 16 cities of Salt Lake County, Utah as well as cities in North Orange County.

Officials familiar with internal city discussions have said they do not expect south county cities will create a homeless shelter in their jurisdiction unless they’re forced to do so. South County cities, they added, have suggested they’re prepared to appeal any orders Carter might issue against anti-camping enforcement.

After months of Carter warning officials about anti-camping ordinances last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sept. 4 — on a case originating in Boise, Idaho —  that people can’t be prosecuted for sleeping in public places if there aren’t enough shelter beds for the homeless population.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this report.