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Lawsuit seeks to protect right to shade, belongings for homeless at OC Civic Center

The homeless encampment at the Plaza of the Flags in the Santa Ana Civic Center, March 30, 2017. Advocates for the homeless allege in a lawsuit filed Aug. 1 that the city has forced the homeless into the hot, exposed plaza from other parts of the civic center, threatening their health. Jill Replogle/KPCC

Advocates for the homeless have filed another lawsuit in Orange County, the third this year, in hopes of improving conditions for people living without shelter. This latest suit targets the city of Santa Ana for its treatment of the estimated 200 homeless people camped out at the civic center. 

The lawsuit claims that the city and Orange County, which jointly manage the civic center, have closed off shaded areas and made campers take down umbrellas and tents, forcing them into the hot, summer sun. The suit claims one plaintiff got heatstroke as a result. 

The suit also claims that the city violates the civil and property rights of homeless people living at the civic center by seizing belongings without notice and making it difficult to retrieve them.  

Morgan Denges, a volunteer coordinator for the group Orange County Catholic Worker and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said his group's efforts to help the homelessness at the civic center are often frustrated by authorities when they confiscate donated supplies.  

“They seem to be hell bent on actively making it harder to be homeless, I believe just in an effort to drive everybody away,” he said. 

The city of Santa Ana didn’t comment on the lawsuit.  

The suit was filed by the Elder Law and Disability Center along with several private lawyers. Brooke Weitzman, lawyer for the center, filed a similar lawsuit earlier this year on behalf of homeless people living along the Santa Ana River

The county settled the suit, agreeing to give prior notice of intent to confiscate belongings and to store seized belongings for 90 days in an easily accessible location.

Weitzman said she hopes Santa Ana will agree to also give prior notice before seizing belongings in the civic center. She also wants the city to stop enforcing a municipal code that limits the amount of belongings individuals can have at the civic center to 3 cubic feet and requires them to be within 3 feet of their property at all time. 

“Someone who’s trying to go to the restroom or get a job or see a doctor has to be scared that their stuff will be determined unattended and thrown away,” Weitzman said. 

County officials have actively encouraged civic center campers to move to the nearby Courtyard emergency homeless shelter, which opened last fall. The shelter has a capacity to sleep 400 people but regularly exceeds that capacity. 

The number of homeless people sleeping outside in Orange County has risen 50 percent over the past four years to nearly 2,600, according to a January count. Another 2,200 stay in shelters.