Orange County to clear out riverbed homeless encampment, provide 400 motel vouchers for displaced people, under proposed agreement

Orange County officials plan to clear out the Santa Ana River homeless encampment next week and supply as many as 400 motel vouchers to displaced inhabitants under a tentative agreement reached Tuesday, Feb. 13, in a federal lawsuit that had challenged recent efforts to evict people from the populous tent city.

The deal was hammered out during an unorthodox daylong hearing in which U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter wielded his judicial powers to entice officials from the county and local cities to negotiate with attorneys for seven homeless people who alleged their civil rights were being violated during recent efforts to evict them.

Under the proposed agreement, the county will begin clearing out the encampments on Tuesday, Feb. 20, dismantling them section by section over a course of three to six days. Notices will be posted Wednesday afternoon, warning inhabitants of the planned action. People who accept vouchers will be allowed to stay in motels for 30 days.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do told the court that the county also will commit to adding 32 beds for homeless people at the county’s Bridges at Kraemer shelter and another 60 beds the facility’s parking lot in the near future; 100 beds at the WISEPlace shelter for women in Santa Ana; 100 beds or tents at a facility in Orange; and 120 beds or tents in land the county owns near the Orange County Registrar of Voters.  Some of the people given vouchers, and temporarily housed in motels, could later move to the more permanent living facilities.

Tuesday’s tentative deal came followed a hearing that marked a pivotal legal moment in Orange County’s rancorous debate over how to balance the civil rights of homeless people with local government officials’ control over their communities. At issue in the lawsuit, filed Jan. 29, was whether homeless people living in them should be allowed to remain there and how police must treat the homeless if they ended up being displaced to city streets.

The lawsuit also sought to answer the question of whether the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange can enforce anti-camping ordinances that advocates say criminalize homeless people who have nowhere else to sleep or keep their belongings. The lawsuit contended homeless people likely will end up in those communities if they can’t remain at the riverbed.

The legal wrangling, closely watched by many in the county, also had the potential to change broader public policy on how homeless people are treated in Orange County, where 33 out of 34 cities have anti-camping laws. Irvine is the only exception.

“We’re at a point in time where something has to give and this lawsuit is a reflection of this, where homelessness has become so visible in the size of this encampment,” said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst and advocate for the Orange County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is among numerous organizations that filed briefs in the lawsuit.

This story is developing. More to come

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