Homeless Settlement Limits South County Anti-Camping Enforcement

NICK GERDA, Voice of OC

Officials pose for a photo after a settlement agreement was finalized in the Catholic Worker homelessness lawsuit on July 23, 2019. From left: former Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, retired Superior Court Judge Jim Smith, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, and county supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do.

Most of south Orange County will now be off-limits for anti-camping and loitering enforcement against homeless people until the cities create shelter beds as an alternative, under a closely-watched settlement finalized in federal court Tuesday.

“The Sheriff’s Department will not enforce anti-camping” laws in the south county cities it patrols until shelter is made available in south county, county Supervisor Andrew Do, who has publicly called on south county to provide shelter, told Voice of OC after the hearing.

The settlement requires that a shelter bed within the same zone of the county, such as south county, be offered and available before the county Sheriff’s Department can enforce the camping and loitering laws against a homeless person.

The department serves as the police force for about two-thirds of south county residents, covering 10 of the region’s 12 cities, none of which have agreed to build a shelter in their jurisdiction since Carter asked them to in spring 2018.

Irvine and Laguna Beach have their own police departments and are not subject to the settlement, which was agreed to by county officials and lawyers for homeless people.

Additionally, in areas where deputies can enforce camping and loitering laws, the settlement requires that specially-trained outreach teams must first engage with the homeless person and determine an appropriate shelter bed based on the person’s needs for medical treatment, mental health services and other factors.

The settlement also sets forth new, detailed countywide standards for homeless shelters and housing, including accessible showers, bathrooms, and eating areas for people with disabilities; a grievance process for people to report problems at shelters; specialized training for shelter staff, including on mental health and trauma; and a process for people kicked out of shelters to appeal the decision.

[Click here to read the settlement.]

“This is a game-changer,” Carter told the courtroom Tuesday before signing off on the settlement, which the court can enforce for the next three years.

The new agreement calls on different regions of the county to make certain there’s a “respective responsibility” for homeless people, rather than “dumping off” homeless people from one area to another, Carter said.

“This stops that dumping. This stops that moving over the borders. Each [region of the county] takes care of its own. Each city takes care of its own,” Carter said.

“This is an exemplary document that the governor should know about,” the judge added, referring to the entire settlement. “It’s a role model for the state. It’s a role model nationally.”

The agreement bars the Sheriff’s Department from transporting homeless people outside of three defined geographic regions of the county, known as “SPAs,” one of which is south county, from Irvine to San Clemente.

The settlement was reached between county officials and Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, attorneys representing homeless people who sued the county in early 2018 over the planned evictions from the Santa Ana Riverbed.

The agreement came in the widely-watched Orange County Catholic Worker lawsuit against the county government and several north county cities, rather than the south county lawsuit Carter was removed from last month.

Many issues and disputes will continue come up with individual cases of homeless people, both sides of the case acknowledged.

The settlement lets either side come back to the court if they believe the agreement isn’t being followed, or if there’s disagreement about how to apply the terms to a specific situation.

“We’ll resolve them on an issue by issue basis,” Carter said, adding, “we’ll do that quickly, to avoid litigation costs.”

“The parties have always been, and [are] probably still, ready to go to war,” Do said at the court hearing. “But we believe that the court will be the voice of reason [that] we can all trust.”

Do called the settlement a “watershed moment” for the county, before thanking Weitzman and Sobel, the lawyers for homeless people.

“They were the mirrors that forced the county…to look within ourselves” and whether the county was living up to the law, said Do. At a court hearing in the case last year, Do said the county “failed” to take leadership on homelessness and committed to spending $70 million in stockpiled mental health money.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett called it “a momentous day” and said the county is willing to step in with “financial resources” to get permanent supportive housing up and running when cities “step up to the plate.”

The protection for camping until shelter is available stems from a federal appeals court decision last year, known as Martin v. Boise, which found it’s unconstitutional to punish homeless people for camping in public if there’s no shelter bed as an alternative.

The agreement’s camping protections apply in the 10 cities patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department, as well as county unincorporated areas in south county, which the department also polices.

The cities are Mission Viejo, Lake Forest, Laguna Niguel, San Clemente, Aliso Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, and Laguna Woods.

Unincorporated areas in south county include the inland canyons as well as the communities of Ladera Ranch, Coto De Caza, Las Flores, and Trabuco Canyon.

County officials said they can enforce in the unincorporated areas because they can transport people to shelters. But it wasn’t clear if that’s the case.

The agreement limits that transportation to shelters in the same region, and the one known shelter in south county most homeless people would be eligible for is already full, according to previous statements by officials in that city, Laguna Beach.

County officials didn’t immediately have an answer regarding which shelter they should transport people to from unincorporated south county.

When it comes to anti-camping enforcement, the settlement treats unincorporated areas of south county the same as the 10 cities the sheriff patrols in that region.

Under the settlement, anti-camping and loitering enforcement is allowed on any property the county owns that is not open to the public, like creeks and the inside of county libraries when they’re not open. Trespassing laws can also apply in those circumstances, which the settlement agreement doesn’t limit anywhere in the county.

The main lawsuit is known as Catholic Worker v. County of Orange. A similar lawsuit was filed around the same time by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, which was paired with the main suit and was also settled Tuesday under the same agreement.

Sobel, in brief remarks during the hearing, emphasized that the court’s handling of the case viewed homeless people as having “humanity.”

“We didn’t spend time demagoguing people,” Sobel said. “The court was clear about that from the outset, that these are human beings.”

This article has been updated to add county officials’ position that they can enforce anti-camping laws in unincorporated areas of south county, which they disclosed Thursday. The story was also updated to include the ability to enforce anti-camping laws on county-owned property.

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