Judge Plans Visit to Giant Homeless Camp in Southern California Riverbed

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge drilled Southern California county officials and homeless advocates Tuesday on what they will do to help homeless residents living in a riverbed if he lifts a block of an anti-camping law issued last week.

Orange County, home to Disneyland and two major sports teams, does not have enough shelter space to house residents pushed out of a 2-mile camp in the Santa Ana River, according to a homeless advocacy group that filed a federal lawsuit against the county in January.

Last week, U.S. District Judge David Carter blocked the county’s efforts to clean up the riverbed, allowing police to be present and make arrests only on probation or parole violations and for any “felonious conduct, to protect the homeless and the residents in the area.”

He added: “The court will not allow haphazard, hurried enforcement action in an effort to clear the population in contravention of the fundamental issues” that were raised at a court hearing earlier this month.

After the restraining order, the county asked Carter to clarify the scope of the injunction and the extent of “riverbed” as mentioned in the order. Carter declined, noting the county had settled a previous lawsuit involving the same part of the riverbed.

On Tuesday, Carter told a packed courtroom and overflow rooms that county officials should have addressed the homeless problem earlier. He referred to a 2005 Orange County Grand Jury report that said the homeless issue was not a priority for county officials, and read from a 2016-17 budget report that said hundreds of millions of dollars was available for housing.

Orange County director of care coordination Susan Price said funding went to several sources, including Section 8 vouchers. Carter cut her off to ask if federal funds could be used to feed homeless people if they are moved to a temporary location.

“Yes, I do believe food could be provided,” said Price, but did not have an estimate of how long that would last.

“It’s federal funding. It’s not your money,” Carter shot back.

“It’s for rapid housing,” said Price.

Carter asked advocates for veterans and domestic violence victims if they could find housing for their community members in a short amount of time.

Judith Rose from domestic violence assistance group Strong Field Project said there are less than 40 beds available.

Carol Sobel, attorney for plaintiffs Orange County Catholic Workers, said, “If we had a shelter emergency declared by Governor Brown it would open up a lot of available housing. It is a statewide problem, your honor.”

For their part, city and county leaders presented several options to house the homeless, including using a nearby community college, setting up tents or tough storage sheds on county property as temporary housing, or splitting the approximately 1,000 people affected into more manageable groups.

They also noted they and the plaintiffs had visited the camp after Carter issued his restraining order. This piqued the judge’s interest.

“We’re all going to visit,” Carter said. “Each of you are going to show me from your perspective the riverbed. We’re going to take field trips.”

Above all, he said, the county and the homeless advocates should find a solution together.

“I’d rather you solve the problem than I issue an order,” said Carter, adding an order has a “chilling effect” and does not have the “ability to adapt” to changes over time.

He gave both sides two hours to hammer out a solution. If they’re unsuccessful, Carter said, there will be more hearings and the promised field trips in the near future.

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