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Judge, lawyers tour Orange County homeless camp in search of solutions

Earlier this year, officials in Orange County sought to clear out land along the Santa Ana River that had turned into the county's largest and most visible homeless encampment.

Advocates for the homeless fought back with lawsuits. As part of settlement talks in one of those lawsuits, a federal judge has taken the unusual step of walking the river with lawyers from both sides to look for solutions. 

Sunscreen applied, heels and suits swapped for comfort wear and walking shoes, around a dozen people -- including lawyers, county officials, an armed guard, and a U.S. Marshal -- recently joined the Honorable David O. Carter on a 6-mile roundtrip walk along the Santa Ana River. 

Carter walks in a dress shirt and slacks, gripping a Starbucks coffee cup and setting a brisk pace along the bike path that follows the river.  

The homeless encampments flanking the river have been the subject of much controversy and several lawsuits this year. Those suits came after the county decided to reclaim some of its land along the river for flood control, forcing several hundred people camped there to move.  

Judge Carter is presiding over one of those suits that claims the county was seizing and destroying homeless people’s property without fair notice and a reasonable way to get it back.  

Carter, a 73-year-old former marathon runner and decorated Vietnam war veteran, has walked the river four times with the parties to the suit as part of settlement talks. 

County officials argue it's often hard to tell what’s trash and what’s treasure in the homeless camps. Plus, they say, the bike path and the river need to stay clean and safe for everyone.  

Under a preliminary injunction signed by the judge in March, the county agreed to store seized belongings for 90 days in an area that’s easily accessible. It also agreed to hand out trash bags to homeless people living along the river. A 5-foot buffer zone was established along the bike path where anything left is considered trash and can be removed.  

The county also established trash pickup sites, including plastic canisters for collecting used needles.  

Both sides are still trying to settle some remaining issues, which they can’t discuss because they're under negotiation.  

During the most recent walk, Carter and his entourage stop at an underpass and pause to look down on a row of tents set up on a flat ledge above the bike path. Ladders lead up to the tents from the steep embankment, making it look like a modern-day, urban version of an Anasazi cliff dwelling. A few tents sit below, near the river, and two men are fixing bikes next the path.  

The judge, lawyers and county officials discuss whether or not the area poses a safety risk. “I’ve never seen this river full during the summertime,” the judge says. "But during the wintertime … this would all be swept away.”  

The groups walks down the underpass and the judge begins posing questions to the bike mechanics.

“Now this has nothing to do with your lawsuit, right?” he clarifies to the lawyers. "This has to do with being a human being."

"Lost your house?” he asks one man. “Yeah,” the man replies. "I was transient for about three years, just moving city to city.” 

It quickly becomes clear that this mobile status conference is about more than resolving what is and isn’t trash. The judge seems to be grappling with whether or not this camp should be allowed to exist at all, whether it’s safe for the people who live, or whether it’s a massive environmental and human health hazard.  

Further down the river and across a railroad trellis, Carter and his group come to a tidy cluster of some 25 tents along a fence line.  

“How you doing?” the judge bellows to a man and two women who walk up to greet the group, accompanied by several dogs.  

“What brought you guys out here?” the judge asks. He questions them about their past lives, their criminal records and drug use. 

Later, a public works employee will inform the group he finds hundreds of hypodermic needles along the river every month.  

Trash, in general, has been a big problem. But everyone says it’s gotten a lot better since Judge Carter’s preliminary injunction.  

Still, the judge reminds residents here that the county has the right to kick them out at any time.  

“I don’t have the power to tell the county not to move you," he says. "I have the power, though, to do that in a humane way.” 

People here seem to get that. They know they’re squatting. But they say one more thing would really improve their daily lives — a restroom that’s open 24 hours. There are public bathrooms next to the bike path nearby, but the county locks them up at night.  

Officials are wary of making this place too comfortable and therefore, too permanent. Some camp sites already seem pretty permanent. Some people have nice couches inside their tents and picket fences delineating their space. One guy has an astro turf patio; another has electricity via solar panels. 

OC Public Works Director Shane Silsby, who’s on this tour, says he's in a tough spot, trying to balance the needs of the homeless with those of the county and all of its residents. Solving the county’s homeless crisis isn't in his job description, he says.  

“We’re just trying to maintain public facilities, which is different than a social issue, right, about homelessness. And we’re not social workers,” he says.  

Several hours later, we’ve crossed back over to the other side of the river. We’re at another underpass and the judge is discussing a hypothetical ruling with the lawyers. 

“I’m asking questions,” Judge Carter says. "I don’t have good answers, remember?”  

“I don’t either,” one of the lawyers chimes in, echoed by another. 

“No one’s got good answers to this,” the judge says.   

Further along the path, behind Angel Stadium, families are tailgating before that night’s baseball game. A tall, chain-link fence separates them from a group of tents where mostly women reside.  

“Hey, you guys ever want to know what it’s like to be an animal at the zoo?” 49-year-old Heather Smith shouts to Judge Carter and the others, who are talking nearby. "Take a look over there. They all have chairs to look at us like we’re in cages.” 

She points to some guys sitting along the side of a pickup truck, drinking beer and gazing out in her direction. Smith has a long story about how she got here, which includes an unfaithful husband, an accident and an addiction to pain medication. She says she sleeps with a baseball bat.  

“Three separate times I’ve woken up in my tent to some strange man fondling me,” she says.  

Finally, back at the parking lot where we started, Judge Carter takes his leave from an exhausted group. He looks like he could go another 10 miles.  

“Ok, everybody have a great weekend. There’s no way to say goodbye except goodbye.”  

“Thank you, your honor,” several of the lawyers respond.  

Brooke Weitzman, one of the lawyers representing the homeless, walks into Anaheim's modern, cathedral-like train station, the ARTIC, to get a cold drink after the walk.  

“I’m hopeful,” she says of a potential settlement in the lawsuit. She’s also “tired and hot and a little bit dehydrated.”