Federal Judge Clears the Way for Santa Ana Riverbed Evictions to Continue

(Photo by John Gilhooley / OC Weekly)

U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter sat at a fold-up table this morning during a court hearing held in the parking lot of the Honda Center. Just across the way, the fate of the last remnants of a homeless encampment alongside the Santa Ana Riverbed awaited his decision. Lawsuits filed on behalf of several homeless people with disabilities froze county efforts to clear the area last month. “The stay is now officially lifted,” Carter announced, hovered over by reporters. 

Even though Carter walked away at that point, attorney Brooke Weitzman cited immediate concerns that brought him back. “Your honor, we have people who are at work, at court, at doctor’s appointments, who are reliant upon the fact that they were told they’d be able to come [get] their stuff,” said Weitzman of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center. “People have had plenty of notice,” Carter countered. “When I was out here Saturday, people were still playing, quite frankly. They’re down there? I’m not sympathetic to that. This court has concluded, that’s the end of it.” 

The court battle over the riverbed homeless encampment resulted in Carter brokering a relocation plan that sends people to motels with vouchers for a month, a process that’s encountered difficulties already. The county filed court documents over the weekend pleading for more time to not only find adequate motel rooms, but build adequate shelter beds. 

“I think the homeless residents are ready to go,” Weitzman, who represents seven plaintiffs, told reporters. “The county doesn’t have anywhere to put them.” Orange County supervisor Todd Spitzer waited in the wings to speak next. “The fact of the matter is judge Carter was unequivocal that he was lifting the order this morning,” Spitzer said. “If he wasn’t unequivocal about the good faith effort on behalf of the County of Orange to place people while we are triaging them, he would not have lifted the order.” 

Judge Carter / Photos by Gabriel San Roman

Spitzer claimed Carter showed impatience with the plaintiffs and disagreed with their arguments. “At some point there was going to be a day of reckoning,” he added. “There was going to be a day where people had to make a decision. They could choose “Door A” which is services or they could choose “Door B” which is refusal to get help.” He deemed the remaining homeless folks the most “recalcitrant,” a comment that drew the ire of few activists gathered nearby. Spitzer noted that the county moved 230 people into housing over the weekend and readied 30 more beds for its Bridges shelter space in Anaheim. The effort would need a few more days. “Judge Carter wants us to get it down now,” Spitzer said. “He wants this place closed.” 

Across the bridge, homeless folks lined up by the dozens to begin the motel voucher process. Steve, a wheelchair user, rolled by the line. “Nobody knows anything,” he said of the confusion. “The homeless will find out in the long run that, basically, they’re full of shit. All they’re trying to do is move you out of the way to look good.” Steve stays at a different part of the riverbed and expressed interest in getting a voucher. He’s been out of the streets the past three-and-a-half years after a workplace injury led to an amputation of his leg at the knee which led to him losing the home he rented in Anaheim. “I’m almost to the point where is it even worth waking up in the morning.” 

Orange County sheriff deputies made their presence known in the riverbed, but didn’t carry out immediate enforcement with the stay lifted. Instead, they told a KTLA Channel 5 crew to move its van out of the entrance. “The sheriff’s department has been making a big problem all morning long in terms of where we park our van,” KTLA morning reporter Eric Spillmann told the Weekly.  “It seems to be a priority for them to kick reporters out.”

Waiting in line for motel vouchers (Photo by John Gilhooley)

OCSD Captain David Sawyer explained that his deputies are providing security for county outreach workers at this point. “For lack of better terms, we’ve slow-played this thing,” he said. The stay being lifted only brought them back to where they started. “We want voluntary compliance. We don’t want to arrest anyone. We still want to go with offering services through the county. If we eventually have to arrest people, we’ll do it.” The plan is to start at the north end of the riverbed at Taft Avenue and work all the way down south by the 5 freeway. “It could easily go two or three days,” Sawyer says. But by the time riverbed hours are closed this evening, it won’t be totally cleared out; far from it. “That’d be completely unrealistic and unfair,” he adds. “The last thing we want to do in this process is arrest people, promise.” 

Buffy, a riverbed resident for the past 17 months, says she plans on being one of the last to leave the area. She’s interested in motel vouchers, but getting into a room is easier promised than delivered. “I’m going to get in line, but I already have strikes against me because I don’t have an ID; it’s expired, it got stolen and it’s from Tennessee,” Buffy explains in a Tennessee twang. “My heart’s breaking because this is my family and we’re just being torn apart.” 

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