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Orange County, ACLU settle lawsuit over homeless encampments

Orange County workers help a homeless woman dismantle her camp off Chapman Avenue along the Santa Ana River. The county plans to remove some 250 people living along the river to clear the space to store riprap and sand.
Jill Replogle
On Feb. 8, Orange County workers help a homeless woman dismantle her camp off Chapman Avenue along the Santa Ana River. Under a settlement reached with the ACLU, the county has agreed to keep gates in the area open to allow homeless people to access food, water and medical treatment.

Orange County will give homeless people camped on county-owned flood control land another week to move out under a settlement reached Friday with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU had asked a federal judge to force the county to remove fencing it had erected around homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River, arguing that the people living there were effectively being imprisoned.  

Orange County Public Works put up the fences in recent weeks and last week began evicting homeless people in order to store boulders and sand for flood control. 

As part of the settlement, the county agreed to keep four gates in the fencing open. People camped within the project area have until February 23 to get their stuff out.

Any items seized by the county after that will be stored at a Lake Forest maintenance yard for 90 days. Per the settlement, the county must offer free transportation to the maintenance yard and from the yard to anywhere in Orange County except the riverbed. 

County spokeswoman Carrie Braun said officials would make vans available to help people collect their belongings from the storage facility. 

On Friday, the county posted notices of the settlement along the riverbed.

Brendan Hamme, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said the settlement was "really everything that we asked for and then some." But he stressed that it would do little to solve Orange County’s ongoing homeless problem. 

“We strongly encourage the county to make a commitment to fund its 10-year plan and to, as soon as humanly possible, provide permanent supportive housing for the folks in the riverbed and throughout Orange County,” he said. 

The county developed a 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2012. Nevertheless, the number of people sleeping on the street on any given night increased by 5 percent between 2013 and 2015, to 4,452, according to the 2015 Point-in-Time homeless count.  

Results of the 2017 homeless count are expected later this year. 

A separate legal complaint filed against the county on Feb. 13 over the treatment of homeless people's belongings is still pending, county spokeswoman Braun said.