Federal judge turns homeless hearing into workshop for long-term solutions

A federal judge on Tuesday turned what was expected to be a preliminary injunction hearing regarding a plan to move transients out of the Santa Ana riverbed into a workshop among attorneys and municipal leaders to get the homeless temporary shelter and then into affordable housing.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who has a well-earned reputation for his unorthodox courtroom style, made it clear to the plaintiffs and defendants in the litigation that he was impatient for a solution to the homeless problem along the riverbed, which has presented a variety of problems ranging from environmental hazards to rising crime in the area and an inability of bikers and hikers to use the public trails.

At the outset of the hearing, Carter asked officials to summon Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do, who happened to be having a morning meeting with Santa Ana officials to discuss the homeless issue, among other things. Do, coincidentally, said he discussed a plan that could provide space for a temporary shelter, which pleased Carter.

At one point during the hearing, when Supervisor Todd Spitzer proposed a "mothballed'' building owned by the Rancho Santiago Community College District at Katella Avenue and Glassell Street as an ideal spot for a permanent housing center for the homeless and complained he can't get any cooperation from college officials, Carter told him to call someone from the college district on the spot and invite him to the hearing.

Carter repeatedly interjected and stopped various speakers when they sounded like they would launch into a planned speech and peppered them with questions. He praised county officials for taking steps to address the homeless problem along the riverbed, but he also admonished them for "chipmunking'' $700 million in federal funding for affordable housing and homeless services over the years.

Carter categorized the homeless population and initially sought to discuss each group individually, but the hearing became a free-wheeling laboratory for "positive'' suggestions on the issues as he attempted to run roughshod over the typical "adversarial'' rhythm of plaintiffs vs. defendants in a courtroom.

Carter said he wanted to avoid just handing down a court order that would "stick'' and could present problems down the road if circumstances along the riverbed change. He said he preferred a global solution would come from the attorneys involved in the lawsuit that would be spearheaded by the county board.

Carter said county officials "have the power to move people'' out of the riverbed, but that he has the authority to make sure it's done in a "humane'' manner guaranteeing the constitutional rights of the transients.

Carter also said he wanted to avoid an endless cycle of citing homeless people for trespassing, which would have them do time in jail since they couldn't pay the fine, and then they would return to the riverbed. Worse, he said, is that the hundreds along the riverbed would flee to surrounding cities, where they would be cited and arrested there and again be in the "revolving door of citations.''

The categories Carter suggested were veterans, abused women, criminals, the mentally ill and those who choose to live outside. He characterized that latter group as "chandelier man,'' after a transient -- featured in an Orange County Register article -- who enjoyed "shooting golf balls over the river.''

Many of the women fleeing domestic abuse have developed "enclaves'' surrounded by "friendly'' males so they can avoid being sexually assaulted, he said. Carter, who has previously visited the riverbed area as part of earlier litigation, spoke of "picking up feces'' with his bare hands as he and the group inspected trash along the riverbed and he recalled talking to one woman who said she slept during the day and was up all night with a Taser to protect herself.

Carter showed a clip of Spitzer telling the Anaheim City Council that it was a "shame'' the county had plenty of money to deal with the homeless problem but hasn't spent it. He kept pointing to $700 million in unspent federal funding, but it wasn't clear if that was an accurate figure or if some of the money could only be spent on issues such as Section 8 housing as officials tried to explain.

Carter admonished both sides to be ready to work until 10 tonight and through the weekend. He also said he would make an unannounced return visit to the riverbed to avoid an entourage of onlookers and media that would compel officials to quickly tidy up the area.

"I know what it looks like, but I want to see what it looks like today,'' he said. "We're all going to visit so get your walking shoes on. We're going to be taking some field trips.''

Carter also pointed to a 2005 Orange County Grand Jury report that faulted county officials for not prioritizing the homeless problem at all. But, he said, this county board has taken the issue seriously.

When Do complained how county officials have been stymied by bureaucrats when they try to find shelter for the transients, Carter said, "We're all done with that now.''

"I can pledge to you my unwavering commitment,'' Do said, referring to how much money the county has available to tackled the homeless problem. "We will get to the bottom of the reserves we have on hand.''

Carter said a solution will be in hand soon.

"It's going to be hours, not days,'' the judge said.

The plaintiffs, who include several homeless people who live on the riverbed, want 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 the transients are found somewhere else to go.

Last week, Carter granted a temporary restraining order when county officials made it clear to the plaintiffs who brought the suit 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.

Orange County officials, however, say they have plenty of beds available. The problem, they say, is that many transients have refused outreach services, choosing to live on the streets rather than abide by the rules at shelters, such as abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

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