Orange County Cities Sued Over Lack of Homeless Shelters

(CN) – Homeless residents of Orange County said in a federal class action lawsuit that five South County cities violated their rights by issuing citations and confiscating their property without providing them shelter.

Duane Nichols, Darren James and Bruce Stroebel said in their 50-page complaint filed Wednesday that they have no way of complying with cities’ anti-camping and anti-loitering laws since cities have refused to construct shelters within their jurisdictions, even as the homeless population continues to climb across the county.

A point-in-time count of homeless residents in the county found more than 3,700 living on the streets and in their vehicles with another 1,300 in shelters, the complaint said, adding that the crisis is reaching a tipping point with more than 90,000 people on the county’s waiting list for affordable housing units.

Plaintiffs added that their class size could exceed 400, which is the number of homeless individuals listed in a 2017 point-in-time count.

The cities – Irvine, Dana Point, Aliso Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente – have chosen to ignore the warnings of a federal judge overseeing a pair of related lawsuits and instead abdicated their duties to provide shelter space, which is required by California law, the complaint said.

“While the County has created several hundred more low-barrier and bridge shelter beds over the last three years, it is nowhere near the number of beds needed to address their responsibility,” the complaint said. “None of the municipal defendants has made any attempt to meet this need and most have blocked efforts to place shelters in their communities.”

Nichols, a 60-year old veteran, and James, who is disabled, both sleep outdoors in San Clemente. Stroebel, who lives with a congenital heart defect, sleeps outside in Irvine, where he grew up.

Representatives for the cities did not immediately respond to a request for comment by press time. But Orange County Board of Supervisors chair Lisa Bartlett said in a statement the county’s ready to help the cities.

“The county has worked diligently to build out the system of care for those experiencing homelessness,” said Bartlett, who represents the 5th District. “Over the last year, we have made significant progress working with willing cities who understand that solving homelessness is a shared responsibility. The county stands ready to cooperate with the court and the cities to address this issue.”

In a case that extends to California cities, the Ninth Circuit said in a September 2018 ruling that homeless residents in Boise, Idaho could not be criminally cited for sleeping on the streets if they had no shelter space available to them.

The 45-bed Alternative Sleep Location in Laguna Beach is the only shelter in South County, the complaint said, adding the shelter was only built as part of a settlement in a separate case involving police officers enforcing anti-camping laws.

The sidestepping of that responsibility has had fatal consequences for the homeless, who face threats of heat stroke in the summer and frostbite and hypothermia in the winter, the complaint said.

A county coroner’s report issued on Monday found that at least 250 homeless people died in 2018, up from 164 in 2015.

The same report found that 25 homeless people’s deaths were reported in the county this year, as of Feb. 19.

Plaintiffs added that the idea that homeless people from across the country are drawn to Southern California’s good weather is not supported by any evidence and that a 2017 United Way report found that 75 percent of homeless people surveyed lived in Orange County for at least six years.

The lawsuit seeks an order enjoining cities from issuing citations and a declaratory judgment that the cities’ policies are unconstitutional.

Orange County, whose sheriff’s department provides law enforcement to defendant cities, is also a named defendant.

Attorneys for the advocacy organizations who are party to the class action lawsuit – Housing is a Human Right Orange County, Orange County Catholic Worker and Emergency Shelter Coalition – filed one of two similar complaints against the county last year to prevent closure of an encampment on the Santa Ana riverbed.

U.S. District Judge David Carter halted the removal of homeless people living on the riverbed and helped broker a deal to house almost 700 people in nearby motels at the county’s expense.

Advocates for the homeless have said that shelters shouldn’t be in isolated locations but instead close to public transportation, jobs, health services and emergency responders.

The lawsuit and subsequent settlement talks resulted in shelters opening in Santa Ana and Anaheim in recent months with Costa Mesa and Tustin slated to open shelters this year.  

Plaintiffs called it “untenable” that South County cities are telling homeless people they should travel to Anaheim or Santa Ana for shelter.

“Requiring individuals to travel to Santa Ana or Anaheim to find shelter is an impossible challenge for those with disabilities for a number of reasons,” the complaint said, adding that the reason why the idea is “an untenable and unlawful solution is that it makes it nearly impossible for homeless individuals to get to jobs and services in South County.”

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