SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — Side-stepping tradition, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter facilitated a unique gathering Saturday with the aim of solving Orange County’s homelessness crisis.
The hearing, at the Santa Ana City Council Chambers, resembled an advocacy conference more than a legal hearing – and if it produces results, it could set an example for the rest of the country.
Orange County officials, including Mayor of Orange Theresa Smith, along with local service providers, law enforcement members and advocates for the homeless gathered for the “coalition of goodness” intended to resolve complex issues delaying support for the county’s homeless population.
Before the hearing began, Judge Carter glided around the room, smiling widely and shaking hands in the packed council chamber. He centered the gathering on solving short-term problems, such as temporary housing and care, and long-term issues such as construction of affordable housing for homeless people.
“Help me come up with a solution,” he said, telling the crowd to either form solutions collectively, or wait for the federal court to do so. “The only way to resolve [the homelessness crisis] is if everybody steps up.”
The hearing was officially scheduled to produce a ruling on a request by advocates to block the removal of homeless people temporarily living in motels at the county’s expense. As of 1 pm Saturday, a federal court official familiar with the proceedings said they were unsure whether Judge Carter would rule on the request at today’s hearing.
Officials initiated removal of residents of the encampment on Santa Ana River on Jan. 22 to conduct an environmental cleanup of the riverbed, which is used as a flood control channel. On Jan. 29, Judge Carter granted a temporary restraining order blocking the removal of encampment inhabitants, facilitating an agreement to move them into motels instead. The county resumed riverbed evictions on Feb. 20, offering connections to shelter and health services for those still present.
In total, the county provided 697 people with temporary motel housing and completed 500 assessments, according to Jen Nentwig, an Orange County media spokeswoman.
Nentwig said the county had no official count of how many people were living on the riverbed, which is located near the Angels baseball stadium in Anaheim. Advocates for the homeless have placed the number around 1500 people.
After the court went into afternoon recess, homeless residents prepared testimony of their experiences both at the motels and at the Santa Ana riverbed.
Donald Dermit, a pastor with The Rock church in Anaheim, said he is working with people whose stay at the motel was ended by the county this week. Dermit, who was a constant presence at the riverbed, said those people have returned to living in tents or are staying in other people’s rooms.
“They are waiting to hear what’s going to happen in terms of next steps for housing,” Dermit said.
Attorneys representing the homeless residents filed a complaint Thursday stating the county told residents with health issues that their stay at the motel would end this week. Others received notices they would be moved to shelters, separating them from loved ones, or connected to services that didn’t match their needs, according to documents filed with the court.
Carter told the crowd he’d received a call from state Senator Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles). According to Carter, De Leon said he will support new legislation aimed at solving the homelessness problem, such as the No Place Like Home bill.
The bill, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in 2016, would assist communities by providing $2 billion for the construction and rehabilitation of permanent supportive housing for homeless individuals with mental illness.
De Leon also told Carter homelessness is a bipartisan issue, saying he would personally lobby Governor Brown on the matter.
Carter had recently shown up at the Civic Center plaza at 6:30 in the morning to personally inspect the living conditions of the homeless population living there.
“When you show up unannounced, you see the reality,” he said, projecting on a large screen images of trash, piles of human feces, and people with serious wounds living on the plaza.
Carter repeatedly told the crowd he and Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do would be available until midnight to help broker agreements between advocates for the homeless, county officials and service providers.
Supervisor Do said the County has “limited resources.” He said not to assume public funding would be immediately available for mental health projects. Do said the reason that cities in the county are not spending money earmarked for mental health services is due to “political paralysis,” which he promised to help end.
“I was elected to lead, to be proactive, not reactive,” Do said. “I’m reaching out to all cities. Work with us, this is not a solo mission.”
Do announced that the Board of Supervisors have already identified $70 million of the unspent funds in the county budget that will be made available for homeless services efforts.
In addition to the current agreement, the county has committed to expanding capacity at local shelters and creating transitional housing centers on county properties. Those centers could serve as a space to receive critical transitional services for those whose motel vouchers may soon expire.
And Carter announced he would call for federal indictments and grand jury investigations against any city that was found “dumping” people from one city to another. He said cities can’t “ping pong” people around to pass off responsibility.
Carter said he could produce the evidence, through acquired surveillance video and law enforcement body camera video, if dumping had occurred.
“You can call me on it, but I don’t want to talk about the past,” he said. “If [dumping] is hypothetically happening, it stops today.”
During the hearing, government officials and advocates praised Carter for his leadership.
“All I’ve done is gone for a walk with great people,” Carter told the crowd of 200 people in the council chambers. “If we produce something it will be because of your goodness, the legislative goodness. Solve it today or don’t leave [until you do].”