Federal Judge Approves Orange County Settlement on Homelessness

State Route 1 winds down the Orange County Coastline over Corona Del Mar state beach. (Photo via Wikipedia Commons)

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – Orange County police may enforce anti-camping laws immediately in county parks and libraries, flood control channels and wildfire-prone nature areas under the terms of a settlement approved Tuesday by a federal judge.

 A federally mandated count of homeless residents found that there are now more than 7,000 people living on the streets and in shelters in Orange County – up from nearly 4,800 in 2017 – with more than 4,000 people living without shelter. 

The settlement, which was preliminarily approved by the Orange County Board of Supervisors last week, outlines how police and county health officials will provide care for the growing homeless population.

Under the agreement, police can enforce anti-loitering laws in cities that have provided adequate shelter space, but they must screen homeless people they come into contact with in other areas and connect them with health services or shelters.

U.S. District Judge David Carter signed off on the agreement at a hearing in Santa Ana federal court, calling it a “game changer” and the most significant homelessness plan in the state.

Carter will oversee the agreement, which ends two federal lawsuits stemming from the clearing of homeless encampments on the Santa Ana riverbed, and he will intervene if parties reach an impasse.

The agreement will ensure that the county is better positioned to fend off outbreaks of diseases and the rapid spread of homeless encampments that other California cities have experienced, Carter said Tuesday.

Carol Sobel, an attorney for homeless residents and advocacy groups, thanked the court for treating her clients with “humanity” and for the thoughtfulness in the proceedings.

“We didn’t spend time demagoguing people,” Sobel said. “The court considered them human beings and that set the tone for the case.”

Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, the county’s lead negotiator for the settlement, told Carter the agreement strikes a balance between care for the homeless and public health and safety.

“To say that this is a momentous occasion is to undersell the watershed moment that it is,” said Do, who also thanked Carter for his role in the agreement.

“Your hands-on involvement was, as some would say, ‘unorthodox,’ but your vision was what it took to streamline what would have been a messier and litigious process for all involved,” Do said.

Carter held lengthy court sessions in the case – at one point hosting a day-long court conference on homelessness issues in the county – and often walked through homeless encampments during early hours to take photos and to speak with unsheltered people.

After halting the removal of homeless people living on the Santa Ana Riverbed, the judge helped broker a deal to house almost 700 people in nearby motels at the county’s expense.

Carter thanked both parties for the commendations and said he hopes California Governor Gavin Newsom will recognize the settlement as a possible “national model” on caring for the homeless.

Outside the courtroom, R. Joshua Collins with Homeless Advocates for Christ said that while the agreement is important, it doesn’t do enough to ensure that housing for the homeless will be constructed.

“There should be one bed for each homeless person, not some percentage of the total homeless population,” Collins said. “Why is it that in such a rich county we lack enough shelter space?”

Tuesday’s agreement, which expires in three years, applies only to North and Central County areas since South County cities are involved in separate litigation.

Advocates for the homeless said in a February 28 lawsuit that five South County cities are violating their rights by issuing citations and confiscating property without constructing shelter space.

A hearing on the cities’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit is set for August 5 before U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, who was added after Carter was removed from the case when South County cities complained that he would not be impartial.

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