Judge orders Orange County to stop evicting homeless from riverbed

A federal judge has granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting Orange County officials from enforcing anti-camping laws on the Santa Ana riverbed until at least next week when the jurist will consider a preliminary injunction.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter granted the restraining order when plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging plans to clear out transients from the riverbed claimed that county officials intended to begin enforcing the anti-camping laws on Wednesday.

The concerns that the county planned to begin clearing out transients from the encampments stemmed from an email exchange between attorneys for the county and the plaintiffs, which include several homeless residents living along the riverbed.

Carter pointed out an email from county attorneys ``indicating that beginning (Wednesday) morning, Orange County Sheriff's Department personnel will advise people on the riverbed to leave, and then cite and arrest for trespassing any person who continues to remain.''

Sheriff's department spokeswoman Carrie Braun confirmed that deputies planned to begin citing transients for violating anti-camping laws on Wednesday.

"The sheriff's department had every intention to begin enforcement of trespassing,'' Braun said.

The sheriff's plans were to seek voluntary relocation of the transients, and as long as that worked deputies would continue in that manner.

"In the last week we saw very little progress'' in clearing out the riverbed, Braun said.

That left public works officials incapable of a project to trim bushes, remove trees when necessary and other maintenance work in the area, Braun said.

The judge granted the restraining order barring ``enforcement of any infraction or misdemeanor anti-loitering, trespassing, or camping ordinances or statutes at the riverbed, in light of these laws not having been enforced for the last year.''

Carter said he would "allow police presence and will allow arrests for any probation or parole violations and any felonious conduct, to protect the homeless and the residents in the area.''

But, Carter added, he would not tolerate "haphazard, hurried enforcement action in an effort to clear the population, in contravention of the fundamental issues that the court raised in its Feb. 4, 2018, order...''

In Carter's Feb. 4 order, he raised the issue of kicking people out of the riverbed even when they have nowhere else to go.

Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do told City News Service that county officials had no intention of clearing everyone out of the riverbed right away.

"The judge seems to believe we were just going to go out there and indiscriminately hand out tickets for trespassing and arresting people and that's not the case at all,'' Do said.

For the past six months, sheriff's deputies have been advising transients that they would have to eventually leave, and social workers are on site daily offering various services, he said.

"We currently have the capacity to house people in shelters if they choose to take advantage of the services we provide,'' Do said. "At no time during this process have we ever run out of capacity in terms of beds available immediately to the residents of the riverbed, so, frankly, I don't know why Judge Carter did not wait until the hearing on Tuesday so he would be fully informed of the circumstances.''

The county's attorneys were trying to inform the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that "at some point we will be more encouraging in trying to get people to take advantage of our services and move out and that this cannot be an indefinite process.''

After six months of outreach, ``this is the time for people to make up their mind at some point.''

Supervisor Shawn Nelson said Carter's order presents a false choice for officials. Allowing camping along the riverbed should not be an option at all, he argued.

"Just because you can't drop all of your (stuff) in the riverbed and collect trash for six months in a row doesn't mean every other alternative is off the table,'' Nelson said.

"There's an environmental risk that seems to be getting ignored here,'' Nelson said.

"We've removed over 100 tons of trash there,'' Nelson said. "This thing has gotten out of hand. They've built fortresses, walls, barriers, and stacks of debris.''

Nelson noted that he argued for setting up a temporary shelter with showers and toilets in the Orange County Great Park area in Irvine, but was rebuffed.

"I've offered alternatives that were better. I didn't win,'' Nelson said.

Nelson said there is no shortage of beds for the homeless as advocates have argued.

"All that really matters is there are more takers than beds and so far there haven't been,'' Nelson said.

"They have completely trashed the riverbed,'' Nelson said. "By every standard they've made it unsafe. All the health and environmental hazards have created an onerous cost burden on taxpayers.''

Supervisor Todd Spitzer said county officials figured they had the go- ahead to clear out the riverbed when Carter did not issue a TRO on Sunday but instead scheduled a hearing on the restraining order request for Tuesday.

"I'm worried we're going to start getting in the world of judicial activism,'' Spitzer said.

Spitzer said that judging from what Carter has said so far it appears he is raising the question of whether officials from the county and surrounding cities are criminalizing homelessness.

"Is that the legal question?'' Spitzer said. "We have every right to clear the riverbed. It's trespassing. But his concern is these people will go off in different locations and will they be subject to arrest and therefore we would be criminalizing homelessness.''

Spitzer speculated that Carter might allow county officials to clear out the riverbed, but then prohibit the surrounding cities from arresting transients for violating anti-camping laws.

"I don't think he can say that. He'd have to find these anti-camping ordinances are unconstitutional,'' Spitzer said.

Spitzer added that social workers have successfully found help for most of the transients along the riverbed, but that those efforts have hit a "complete stand still'' as 121 remaining transients refuse any services.

"We've got a place to go for each one and they're refusing to go,'' Spitzer said.

Some may be "hearing rumors'' of a court injunction preventing their removal while others may be saying they have nowhere to go and are willing to risk being jailed, Spitzer said.

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