OC workers begin moving transients out of Santa Ana riverbed

- Orange County officials on Tuesday began moving transients out of the Santa Ana riverbed to shelters or motels, as a federal judge lifted a temporary restraining order that had prohibited the clearing out of the encampments along biking and hiking trails.

The county got a head start on the process starting last Tuesday, when U.S. District Judge David O. Carter turned what had been expected to be a preliminary injunction hearing into a workshop on how to problem-solve the encampment issue. Carter was at the riverbed about 8 this morning to announce the lifting of his TRO so the work could begin.

Since last Tuesday, officials have gotten 178 people into 157 motel rooms, according to Jen Nentwig, a spokeswoman for the Orange County chief executive's office.

"Things are progressing as planned,'' Nentwig said this morning.

Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who represents the homeless who sued the county regarding the move, said at mid-morning that "it's a little too soon to tell'' how well the move was progressing.

"We do continue to have good communication with the county,'' Weitzman said, "but we continue to be very concerned with a potential lack of available rooms.''

Weitzman also noted there was "a lot of confusion'' in organizing the social workers' interviews with the transients. The homeless were getting conflicting instructions from officials from various agencies directing them to numerous lines to stand in to secure services, according to Weitzman, who said some of the transients were losing their place in one line and being sent to another.

Orange County Public Works officials had large trucks available to pick up trash and to help transients carry their belongings to storage areas. Orange County social workers were discussing with each homeless person whether it was best to place them in a shelter or a motel room as they consider more stable, long-term housing.

As of last week, officials estimated there were about 400 transients still left in the riverbed from a population that had swelled to more than 1,000 at one point. Social workers had managed to get many to alternative housing, but a group remained, forcing a showdown in federal court last week between the county, which wanted to reopen up the biking and hiking trails to the public, and homeless advocates who wanted to make sure the transients didn't end up on a criminal merry-go-round as they bounced from city to city, running afoul of anti-camping ordinances.

The work began at 9 a.m. on the north end at Taft Avenue and Ball Road, said Orange County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

Social workers will see how many of the transients will go to area shelters, where such services as health care are available, Braun said. When the available beds fill up, then motel vouchers will be handed out along with food vouchers, she said.

The transients also will be offered transportation to a motel, she said, while those who refuse to leave risk citations or arrest.

It's not clear how long the work will take.

At a special meeting last Thursday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved spending for 400 motel vouchers and food and plans to expand temporary housing elsewhere to handle the influx of transients. The supervisors unanimously approved the plan, much of which was worked out in Carter's courtroom under the threat of a preliminary injunction that would have dictated how they handled transients moved out of the riverbed.

The supervisors budgeted $180,000 for the food vouchers for the estimated 400 homeless people living in the riverbed encampments between Taft Avenue, Ball Road and Memory Lane.

The county also has added 92 beds at the Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim, which has been opened in stages and is still being completed. Officials say tents may be erected in the shelter's parking lot if necessary.

If there aren't enough motel rooms, officials are also poised to put up tented shelters at other county locations, including near the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana.

The WISEPlace shelter for women in Santa Ana will get 100 more beds to handle victims fleeing domestic abuse.

County social workers will also work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and other area agencies to bring services to veterans on the riverbed.

The transients on the riverbed today will be offered motel vouchers for 30 days and other services.

While the homeless are in the motels, officials will work to find them more permanent housing and shelter.

The average rate of the motel rooms is $75 to $125 nightly, according to Orange County CEO Frank Kim.

Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio asked the county not to put all or most of the transients in Santa Ana motel rooms. He also sounded concerns about setting up a temporary shelter near the Orange County Registrar of Voters office.

"We'd like to see the county work with as many cities as possible so the vouchers are used countywide,'' Solorio said.

Solorio praised the county's new shelter in Anaheim, saying it has likely made the area "cleaner and safer than it was before.''

The county could add 32 beds to the shelter in Anaheim and provide an additional 60 with tents in the parking lot.

A fleet yard in Orange can also be used to erect a tent to set up 100 beds.

In all, the county believes it can provide 700 to 800 more beds, said Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do.

Homeless advocates had sued over plans to clear the camp, arguing there was nowhere for the transients to go.

Carter toured the encampment early Wednesday morning with county and other officials, who began notifying people living there that they had to vacate the area.

Carter said in court that he wanted to avoid an endless cycle of citing homeless people for trespassing, which leads to them serving jail time since they can't pay the fine, and ending with them returning to the riverbed. Worse, he said, was the possibility that the hundreds along the riverbed would flee to surrounding cities, where they would be cited and arrested, and again find themselves in the "revolving door of citations.''

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including several homeless people who live on the riverbed, wanted Carter to block the county and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange from enforcing anti-camping laws along the riverbed and the surrounding cities until alternative housing was found. Last week, Carter granted a temporary restraining order when county officials made it clear to the plaintiffs that they intended to begin enforcing anti-camping and trespass laws along the riverbed.

Orange County Catholic Worker, the main plaintiff in the lawsuit, argued that county officials have failed for years to provide affordable housing for the area's needy and that its homeless shelters are overcrowded.

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