Judge David O. Carter, lawyers and county officials stop to talk to a group of homeless men camped along the Santa Ana River in March 2017. Judge Carter is now presiding over a case that allowed for the riverbed homeless encampment to be cleared with the promise of finding appropriate shelter for the some 700 people still living there in February 2018. (Jill Replogle/KPCC)
Orange County officials agreed Saturday to consider extending motel stays for some homeless people who have been in motels since their eviction from an encampment along the Santa Ana River last month. They also plan to start clearing another homeless encampment, in the Santa Ana Civic Center, on April 2.
The agreement came after a day-long court hearing, held by U.S. District Court Judge David Carter at Santa Ana City Hall. The hearing was attended by county officials, city leaders, homeless people and their advocates.
Lawyers for the county and for homeless plaintiffs negotiated for nearly six hours behind closed doors before Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do announced the county would consider paying for some homeless people to stay in motels longer than their allotted 30 days, if outreach workers determine that there’s no appropriate shelter option for them.
Do told Take Two on Monday that the extended motel stays will be determined on a case-by-case basis.
"In those few cases where we feel like people are making good progress, for instance, and just a few days in a motel would allow them to transition more successfully, or those cases where the placement may be a little bit challenging because of the multiple factors that we have to deal with, then on those cases, the county will exercise the option to keep them in motels longer," Do said.
The county agreed to give lawyers for the homeless 48-hours notice before relocating them from the motels. That’s intended to give them time to object if they feel a placement for an individual is inappropriate.
Amy Cheema, who's been staying at a motel in Buena Park since she was evicted from the riverbed in February, got a letter on March 15 from county health care workers informing her she would be referred to an emergency shelter.
"I don't want to go to a shelter," she said. "At least at the riverbed there was freedom. I feel like I'm being punished for something; I don't know what I did."
She said she would fight for something better.
Rebecca Kovacs, a volunteer who’s been visiting the homeless in motels, worries that many people will end up back on the streets.
“They’re broken. And shelter isn’t going to work. They’d rather go back to the riverbed."
Anyone who does decide to return to the riverside encampments will be subject to citation or arrest, though, Do warned.
"Judge Carter was very clear on Saturday. He said look: All he can do is hold the county to its responsibility to create a system of care. Ultimately, he's not going to protect people who do not take advantage of those services," he said.
Some homeless people and their advocates say the county is providing few options for homeless couples. Shelters often separate men and women, and partners are not allowed to stay at the recuperative care facilities offered by the county, which take people recovering from acute physical problems.
"You either accommodate the disability or you put someone in the impossible choice of having to leave their partner," Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers for the homeless, said. "It's not a choice."
Sobel also said she was doubtful the county could locate enough beds in shelters, substance abuse programs and mental and physical rehab facilities to accommodate the more than 600 homeless people still in motels.
"Frankly, I think they're going to run out," she said. The Orange County Board of Supervisors is holding an emergency meeting Monday to discuss possibilities for expanding beds and services for the homeless.
After the settlement was announced at the hearing, lawyers went back to negotiating next steps for the dozen or so homeless people whose motel stays have already run out.
The hearing was requested by lawyers for homeless plaintiffs, who are facing the end of their county-guaranteed motel stays in the coming days. The lawyers said the county had failed to come up with an adequate plan for providing shelter for their clients beyond the motel stays.
During the first few hours of the hearing, Judge David Carter congratulated county leaders and plaintiffs’ lawyers for humanely clearing the Santa Ana riverbed homeless encampment, where he said an estimated 1,500 people had lived.
He also accused Orange County cities, without mentioning names, of dumping homeless people at the riverbed and in central cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana and threatened to order a federal investigation.
"It stops now," he said.
Judge Carter also said he wants the homeless encampment at the Santa Ana Civic Center, where some 150 sleep nightly, cleared within the next few weeks.