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Orange County homeless camp to be cleared out next week

A homeless man walks back to his tent along the Santa Ana River. Advocates for the homeless want to install port-a-potties on nearby land owned by the city of Anaheim.
Jill Replogle/KPCC
In this file photo, a homeless man walks back to his tent along the Santa Ana River. Advocates for the homeless are expected to argue Tuesday that Orange County can't remove them without adequate housing options.

A federal judge gave his tentative approval Tuesday to a plan for clearing out Orange County’s largest homeless encampment a week from now, while also offering hotel vouchers to the people currently living there.

After hours of closed-door negotiations between county officials and lawyers for the homeless, OC Supervisor Andrew Do told the judge that the county would commit to offering up to 400 hotel rooms for people currently camped out at the riverbed. He later said the county would pay for them for up to 30 days.

Do also pledged an additional 60 beds that would be placed in temporary structures in the parking lot of a county homeless shelter in Anaheim, 100 beds at a women’s shelter and some 200 beds that could be placed in tents at two county-owned parking lots in Orange and Santa Ana.

Do later said that the new emergency shelters in parking lots would be offered as places for people to go after the 30 days in hotel rooms. He said wrap-around services, like case management and mental health support, would also be offered to those who accept the hotel vouchers.

Brooke Weitzman, one of the attorneys representing homeless plaintiffs living at the riverbed, expressed tentative hope for the plan.

“I think it’s going to depend on the county and whether they can find the resources,” she said. But she also told Judge Carter she was concerned about how the encampment clearing would be carried out.

Carter said he wanted notice of the clearing posted at the riverbed on Wednesday and for the clearing to take place in as little as three to four days starting Tuesday, Feb. 20.

“Some will take advantage of the resources, some won’t,” he said of the 400 to 1,000 homeless people estimated to live along the riverbed. “Those who want to wander will wander. Those who want to go to a hotel can go tonight,” he said, meaning next Tuesday.  

He said he planned to be there when the clearing takes place to make sure it goes smoothly.

"As they come up to the tents or whatever, they’re going to be given a last chance,” he said.  

Tuesday’s unorthodox court hearing started with Carter grilling county officials and others throughout the morning about their willingness and ability to find resources to house homeless people currently camped out along the Santa Ana riverbed. 

At one point, the judge sent two volunteers to walk across the street from the courthouse to a homeless shelter and report on the number of vacant beds as part of efforts to get an accurate inventory of available resources. 

Tuesday's hearing is the first court date in a lawsuit filed by advocates for the homeless that seeks to halt the county’s plans to clear the sprawling riverbed homeless encampment. Earlier this month, Carter ordered the county to temporarily stop telling homeless people to leave, pending the outcome of hearings. 

The lawsuit also took aim at the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa for their anti-camping and anti-loitering ordinances. Advocates for the homeless argue that people removed from the riverbed would be forced to move into surrounding cities, where they would face punishment for violating local anti-camping laws. 

In court, Carter questioned county supervisors Todd Spitzer and Do and OC homeless czar Susan Price about unspent funds that might be available to house people at the river. 

"You’ve been chipmunking federal money, in my opinion,” Carter said, referring to information from Spitzer and Price about unused funds that could possibly be used to house the homeless. “But you haven't allocated any local money.”

Advocates for the homeless chastised the Board of Supervisors last year for not setting aside any of the county’s discretionary funds to address homelessness, which many local officials say has reached crisis proportions. 

Eve Garrow, a homeless policy analyst for the ACLU, said the board has been reluctant to use the roughly $800 million in funds to help house homeless people, “and they’re really going to have to to end homelessness."

Nearly 5,000 people are homeless in Orange County, according to a 2017 count — an increase of 13 percent since 2013. More than half of them sleep on the streets without shelter. 

A survey of homeless people camped at the river last year counted 422 people, but lawyers for the plaintiff in the case before Judge Carter estimate that more than 1,000 people are now camped within about a 2-mile stretch behind Angel Stadium. 

Judge Carter said he had received numerous emails from irate apartment residents and homeowners near the riverbed asking the judge to allow county officials to clear out the homeless encampments. 

Conversely, Carter read a letter from Santa Ana officials expressing concern that clearing the riverbed would send more homeless people to Santa Ana — particularly to the Civic Center, where several hundred people already sleep nightly. 

Last year, OC Supervisor Shawn Nelson proposed citing an emergency shelter on county-owned land in Irvine, Huntington Beach or Santa Ana. Irvine and Huntington Beach officials swiftly opposed the idea. 

At the hearing Tuesday morning, supervisors Do and Spitzer both offered up county-owned lots not far from the riverbed where they said an emergency tent shelter or tiny house encampment could potentially be set up. 

Just before noon, Carter ordered a break and asked both sides in the lawsuit to try and work towards a solution. He said if there’s progress, he could call off the hearing. If not, he vowed to drag the hearing on into the weekend, if necessary, in order to reach a solution.

This story has been updated.