Trading his robe for sneakers, a federal judge takes an illuminating riverside stroll as Orange County homeless encampment evictions loom
Word spread swiftly before dawn Wednesday among the homeless people camped along the litter-strewn Santa Ana River Trail: A federal judge who had brokered the apparently imminent end to Orange County’s largest homeless encampment – while also securing short-term shelter for the people displaced in that eviction – was on foot and headed their way.
A day after forcing a short-term fix to what has been one of the county’s most intractable problems, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter ditched his robe for a pair of jeans and New Balance sneakers, and led dozens of public officials on a four-hour morning march through the makeshift tent city.
Along the way, he directed the group that strode along with him to provide extra assistance to homeless veterans and disabled people and clean up piles of trash.
“We’re going to be moving people out Tuesday,” Carter warned Michael Diehl, 47, who became homeless after he was shot in the face in 2009. “You know, the county’s going to be (supplying) 30 days in a motel.”
“Just be packed up and ready to go.”
As Carter walked away from Diehl, county officials swooped in. Within minutes, they had arranged for the man – a four-year homeless inhabitant of the tent city – to be moved to a local hotel within a matter of hours, as soon as he could collect and pack his belongings.
About 12 hours later, attorneys in the lawsuit signed off on a plan that the Orange County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on that outlines what the county will provide to about 400 people still living at the riverbed when the encampment is dismantled early next week.
At a special hearing set for 3 p.m. Thursday, the county board is set to vote on an emergency aid package that will include: providing motel vouchers, renewed on a week-by-week basis, for a minimum of 30 days; assessment of each individual’s needs and appropriate resources; food vouchers for people who relocate to motels; 90-day voluntary storage of belongings beyond what can fit in the trunk of the vehicle that will be provided to take them to a motel.
“Are you prepared to sign this?” the judge asked the half dozen attorneys gathered in his courtroom past 6 p.m. in the otherwise empty federal courthouse.
They answered in a chorus: “Yes!”
The attorneys for the plaintiffs said they were certain of also hearing “yes” votes from Supervisors Andrew Do and Todd Spitzer, and expected at least one other member of the five-person board to approve the plan. Still, they were cautious.
“We’re going to see what happens,” said Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers representing the seven homeless people who sued the county and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange late last month.
If the board rejects the plan, Sobel said, everybody could be back in court on Friday.
But anticipating approval, Carter said he is ready to revise the temporary restraining order that halted the clearing of the bike trail so that it would expire at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, clearing the way for the tent encampment’s dismantling to get underway.
In total, seven inhabitants of the encampment were relocated to some form of shelter on Wednesday, according to county officials, including several people with special needs and a man with cancer who was placed in recuperative care.
Diehl said he was relieved and looked forward to taking a shower, which had become a luxury in recent years. And he marveled aloud at how Carter in a single day had forced county officials to pledge what could amount to millions of dollars in additional resources to help the homeless.
“He’s awesome,” Diehl said.
But Diehl ultimately could not get into a motel because his California identification was expired; county outreach workers are expected to help expedite getting him a new ID card.
The plan for how to take apart the entrenched two-mile encampment emerged Tuesday evening during a hearing in a federal lawsuit that challenged the county’s recent efforts to evict homeless people camped in the flood control channel. The lawsuit, filed Jan. 29, alleged the action could violate people’s civil rights and effectively criminalize homelessness if the displaced people were later cited under anti-camping laws in the nearby cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa.
As Carter weighed whether to grant an injunction, he pressured county officials and attorneys for the homeless to negotiate a prompt agreement on the issue rather than have him rule on the matter.
What emerged was a plan in which the county will force homeless people to leave the riverbed next week but must offer up the motel vouchers to those people. Supervisor Do also committed to adding up to 400 beds for the homeless at local shelters or by creating emergency triage camps on county properties. Those camps could serve as an interim place to stay for people who don’t have long-term housing after their motel vouchers expire.
As Carter strolled through the encampment Wednesday, proclaiming his will, swift action by public officials followed in his wake. Minutes after Carter voiced concern that a man living beneath an underpass was unsafe in that location, deputies arrived on the scene to force the man to move.
When Carter encountered wheelchair-bound people in the riverbed, county staff members quickly worked to find motels that accommodated people with disabilities.
The judge stopped often to photograph and examined trash along the berms and sloped banks of the Santa Ana River. He acknowledged that debris in a flood control channel could cause public safety problems, supporting the county’s primary argument of why it needed to clear the camp.
Carter said he hoped his presence would have a calming effect on the encampment’s inhabitants in advance of the move.
Brook Weitzman, an attorney who represented the homeless plaintiffs in their lawsuit, assured people she encountered that it would “be us coming through on Tuesday – not probation or parole officers.”
Several homeless people said they hoped a month in a motel would provide the stability they needed to steady their lives.
Ashley Baker, 29, who said she’d been homeless since being evicted by a “slumlord” a year ago, said she’d use the month to finish an online photography course and seek employment.
Susan Price, who directs the county’s response to homelessness, said moving people from the riverbed camps would force them to “think about what’s possible.”
“This is a chance for people to reclaim their future,” Price said.
But others, such as Diehl, said they were too disabled to seek employment and would need to have continued support after their motel vouchers expired, or they would risk becoming homeless again.
“I know what it takes to survive in this world, and I can’t do it,” Diehl said.
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