Federal Judge Holds Orange County Cities' Feet to the Fire Over Homeless Crisis

Trash bags sit outside tents and tarps of a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana riverbed bicycle path near Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Jan. 25, 2018. Over 700 homeless people were evicted in February from encampments along the riverbed. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Orange County officials have begun to clear about 200 homeless people from the Santa Ana Civic Center’s Plaza of the Flags, the central plaza by City Hall and the federal courthouse.

Support services began to triage people on Monday, and that work is ongoing. Officials are using the earlier model of how the homeless were evicted -- into temporary housing -- from the Santa Ana Riverbank in February.

Both orders came from federal Judge David O. Carter, who is overseeing a lawsuit filed by homeless advocates against the county to not simply evict people and move them along.

Carter invited stakeholders and the mayors of all 34 cities in Orange County for a Tuesday hearing focused on the ongoing wrangling over how to deal with the homelessness crisis.

His invitation came on the heels of an Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting last week that reversed course on placement of temporary emergency shelters for about 400 people in the cities of Irvine, Laguna Niguel and Huntington Beach.

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Residents of those cities protested loudly against having shelters in their cities, drawing charges of nimbyism from homeless advocates.

“We’ve got five of the wealthiest 20 cities in America. This is not about money. We are better than this," Carter told a packed courtroom.

Federal Judge David O. Carter (R) took the unusual step of personally touring the Santa Ana riverbank encampment before hundreds of homeless people were evicted from the area in February.
Federal Judge David O. Carter (R) took the unusual step of personally touring the Santa Ana riverbank encampment before hundreds of homeless people were evicted from the area in February. (Orange County Register/YouTube)

It was clear that the judge was frustrated at the temporary shelter impasse -- and the political impasse. He wanted to get things moving by bringing stakeholders in front of him to answer questions about what each city is doing toward sheltering a portion of Orange County’s homeless population, estimated at 5,000 people in 2017.

Orange County mirrors the story of California -- 34 wealthy cities juxtaposed with substantial poverty and a growing divide between haves and have-nots. Add to this what Orange County Board of Supervisors Chair Andrew Do calls a “failure” of civic leadership over many years, and a homelessness crisis has blossomed.

Carter said the "good mayors" -- the ones seeking solutions -- were present in his courtroom for the hearing. He shamed those he called the "bad mayors" for being absent.

Mayors from Santa Ana, Orange, Anaheim, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Tustin and Irvine stood at a podium in front of the judge and spoke about the shelters in their cities, what they had done, what they would like to do. Carter grilled them, praised them and reminded the courtroom that he could issue a temporary restraining order on any city’s anti-camping ordinance to get officials to step up and build shelters in their communities.

Much of the talk was about money needed to create permanent supportive housing. Numbers flew around: Was there $500 million in an account? More? Less? Of money available that could be leveraged to help the homeless in Orange County, Carter said: “That money has been sitting there, chipmunked away. At the state level and in Orange County. And OC is disproportionate in the chipmunking. It’s embarrassing.”

The Board of Supervisors recently pledged around $90.5 million to help find permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

Judge Carter vs. Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner

The liveliest exchange came when Carter got Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner in his sights.

Wagner told the judge that Irvine has identified at least one other potential place to put some beds, and he explained Irvine’s outcry at the idea of the temporary shelter in the context of past experience, when churches tried to help the homeless and had trouble with a few violent people.

"I want this court to know that we appreciate you (Judge Carter) moving this forward and that Irvine stands ready to help," said Wagner.

And then the judge questioned the mayor. Here’s how that went:

Judge David O. Carter: “Is this idea of regional responsibility acceptable to you? Are you dedicated right off the bat to the idea of holding your own down in South County? (and not moving people along to other cities like Santa Ana?)"

Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner: "We in Irvine have been accused of dumping (homeless people)."

Judge Carter: "Who accused you of that?"

Mayor Wagner: "I’ve read that in the press and on the blogs."

Judge Carter: "There are three types of dumping."

“One is what has been occurring,” Carter said, referring to homeless people being brought to Santa Ana to get an assessment, with nobody taking them back.

“The other kind is what you hear walking down that river. I’m blessed that I took those unorthodox walks down that (Santa Ana) river.”

Carter recalled how people told him that police picked them up and told them to get down to the Santa Ana River. And he invited Wagner to go out to the Civic Plaza homeless encampment with him.

“The third kind of dumping?” A fast transport system by some agencies.

Judge Carter: “So, which kind of dumping are you talking about?”

Mayor Wagner: “I’m going to tell you that we have done none of those things. I’ve been assured by our police that the only transport we do is contact the shelters in some of these other cities -- do you have room? -- and they are transported there. I am unaware of any efforts to transport them back. Irvine is fully behind the concept of regional centers. One of the problems we had with the tent city concept (the temporary shelter) was no mental health facilities, no job placement."

Carter pressed Wagner on how much time his city needs for a site to be found and realized. The judge threatened to step in and invalidate (by temporary restraining order) the anti-camping ordinances, and told Wagner that if he did that, "you’ll be back" -- because Wagner’s constituents would clamor for a solution over tent camps that the Irvine police would not be able to clear out legally.

Judge Carter: “Can you give me a time frame so we can get down to reality and a piece of property? I don’t care what it is, but you can’t keep shipping folks up here and turning them loose in Santa Ana."

Mayor Wagner: "Your honor, I’m going to push back. We are not shipping people to Santa Ana... You want a date? We have started. We started before this morning, trying to find those places. Can I tell you how long it takes to get the appropriate wraparound services?”

But Wagner couldn’t give a date or a time frame for finding, funding and building an emergency shelter. He was able to set up a meeting for further discussion with the judge.

In spite of his frustration at the politics of finding solutions to the homeless crisis, Judge Carter sounded hopeful.

"One of the positive things that is happening is that there are coalitions of goodness happening. I’m going to give that time to keep fostering."

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