ACLU Says Orange County Effectively Imprisoned Homeless

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — A homeless man has sued Orange County, demanding it remove chain-link fences that have “effectively imprisoned” scores of homeless people living in a riverbank camp on the Santa Ana River.

The ACLU of Southern California filed the lawsuit on behalf of Michael Diehl, who has lived at the encampment for three years. The Feb. 10 federal complaint for unreasonable seizure, false imprisonment and due process violations demands the removal of the 6-foot-high chain-link fences penning in 75 to 100 people and their belongings.

“Defendants’ actions have not only illegally restricted the liberty of the homeless people living in the encampment, but it has also cut them off from access to food, water, and medical care thus threatening their health and well-being, the lawsuit states.

Diehl was shot in the head at a Tustin convenience store in 2009. He lost his right eye and doctors were unable to remove the bullet from his head. He takes medication every day to control seizures that have become more frequent with the increased presence of authorities at the encampment, he says in the complaint.

When a woman suffered a seizure at the encampment after the fence was erected, Diehl says, paramedics had difficulty reaching her because the barriers have blocked parts of the sidewalks at Chapman Avenue and Orangewood Avenue where people used to come and go.

If people living at the encampment cut holes in the fences with bolt cutters, Orange County Public Works employees repair it. For the elderly and disabled it is neither safe nor realistic to scale the fence or navigate the river to get to a steep, rocky embankment on the river’s west side, Diehl says.

“Children, people with severe disabilities, the elderly and others are deprived of food, water and access to restrooms,” said ACLU homelessness policy analyst Eve Garrow. “The county should take action to rectify this egregious violation of basic human rights.”

Orange County says the fencing is part of a flood control and security project, and that it will use the area to stockpile large rocks and sand.

“The county is aware that there are homeless encampments in the project area. Flood control channels are not a safe place to live. Sign postings and in-person notifications about the project have been provided to those encamped along the county maintenance road,” the county said in a statement.

But Diehl says police officers have told homeless people that if they want to avoid citations for sleeping in public they should move to the river bank.

The county says it expects to complete the project in June.

Diehl seeks an injunction ordering the county to provide him with “reasonable means of leaving the riverbed and being able to retrieve his property.

He is represented by ACLU staff attorney Brendan Hamme of Santa Ana.

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