The battle over the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless encampments returned to the courts on Monday. That’s when homeless advocates filed a lawsuit alleging the county is violating the civil rights of the homeless with its latest efforts to clear the area.
Seven people living along the Riverbed are named as plaintiffs as well as the Orange County Catholic Worker. The cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange are also being sued for their anti-camping ordinances that discourage displaced homeless people from resettling there and, in many cases, pushed them to the riverbed in the first place.
The 40-page suit reads like a searing indictment of the county’s misguided attempts to address the issue of homelessness. “The failure, if not the outright refusal, of Orange County and its cities to adopt positive measures to address the housing crisis and the willingness to criminalize the mere act of existing in public spaces takes a toll on the County’s most vulnerable,” the suit reads.
And that toll is most dramatically measured by homeless people dying, a stat the suit notes reached an all-time annual high last year with 210 deaths.
The stretch of encampments along the Riverbed by Angel Stadium had been under a court ordered injunction with a previous Feb. 2017 lawsuit filed the Santa Ana-based Elder Law and Disability Rights Center. A year later, the new complaint accuses the county of not having done enough to safeguard the homeless population while working to provide an alternative place for them to go. Instead, they harassed the homeless by unloading rocks and developed county-owned land in Irvine for luxury condos, not temporary shelter space.
Lisa Bell, a Riverbed encampment dweller and plaintiff in the suit, can only count on monthly Social Security Disability Insurance after having lost her job. Before moving to the Riverbed, she lived in her car with rents in OC too high and affordable housing waiting lists too long. But then continual harassment from Anaheim police led to her car being towed for “allegedly having been parked on a public street for 72 hours.” Unable to afford impound fees to retrieve her car, she ended up living on the Riverbed like an estimated 800-1,200 people.
The suit seeks an injunction to stop the county from closing the Riverbed and citing people for trespassing there. With regards to the trio of homeless harassing cities, another injunction stopping the enforcement of anti-camping laws is being demanded.
Stories like Bell’s compelled taking legal action and highlight the policy failures that led to the encampments. “The County has not provided any other County land on which the Plaintiffs can reside without trespassing,” the suit reads. “Instead, it intends to enforce County anti-camping ordinances and expects Plaintiffs and others to move into surrounding cities such as Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa, in which anti-camping ordinances prevent them from lawfully residing without shelter and loitering laws prohibit even their presence in these cities.”
Bridges in Anaheim, the Courtyard in Santa Ana and temporary shelter spaces are described as inadequate to fully address the issue. With that, the suit raises a reoccurring question: where are the homeless expected to go?