By AMY TAXIN, Associated Press
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) – Led by a federal judge, an entourage of three dozen lawyers, activists, county workers and officials set out at dawn Wednesday down a California trail to ask hundreds of homeless people camped along a riverbed what it will take to help them move.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter boldly ordered the unusual outing in a case in Orange County being watched by homeless advocates along the West Coast and elsewhere grappling with a rise in homelessness caused in part by soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy.
Homeless advocates sued and sought protection from the courts when they heard authorities were going to start citing or arresting people at the encampment who refused to budge.
Carter's ruling will only cover people living in the encampment near the stadium where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim play, but homeless advocates elsewhere might look to the case to make similar claims, experts said.
As part of the case, Carter has grilled officials about how to remove syringes littering the ground, the lack of access to bathrooms and who is and isn't willing to move to motel rooms the county will offer as the encampment is shut down.
During a court hearing Tuesday, Carter insisted the two sides get together for several hours and come up with a solution.
"We're going to solve it right here," Carter said. "I'm tired of the paperwork, 'We can't get it done,' nonsense."
Public officials and homeless advocates later reached agreement on providing the motel rooms and other shelter.
Carter called on Orange County officials, veterans, women's advocates and others to help those living on the 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) stretch of trail along the Santa Ana River once popular with joggers and bikers that has been overrun by tents, trash and human waste.
Orange County, home to 3.2 million people between Los Angeles and San Diego, started telling the homeless last month officials were closing the encampment of tents and tarps and offering to store belongings and help find shelter.
"These are issues that are being litigated around the country," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. "What the court decides may be used by these litigants and may be looked to by other courts, even if it is not binding."
Orange County officials say they would use motels and other means to get 700 to 800 beds for the homeless driven from the encampment.
"We pledge up to 400 motel rooms, immediately," County Supervisor Andrew Do told the court, adding that the county would also add beds and could put up a tent on a county-owned parking lot if space was needed.
Brooke Weitzman, an attorney for the plaintiffs seeking to stop the eviction, said she was concerned that encampment dwellers would not trust county officials' offer of help on such short notice, but Carter told her notices would go up as soon as Wednesday and he trusted their word.
"Some will take advantage and some won't," Carter said. "Some who want to wander will wander. Some who want to leave will leave."
The sides agreed that social workers would help the homeless find longer-term housing after the initial relocation, which will take place in a week.
During Tuesday's hearing, Carter said he believes Orange County has enough money to find a fix and should be spending it.
He also said a cluster of cities near the riverbed should help after pushing the homeless off their streets and sidewalks to the county-owned trail.