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Homeless at OC riverbed camp prepare to move

A homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River bike path near Katella Ave. in Orange, Sept. 15, 2017. The camp is scheduled to be cleared on Feb. 20, 2018 by court order. Jill Replogle

A federal judge has signed off on a legal agreement between Orange County officials and homeless advocates over the fate of hundreds of people camped along the Santa Ana River.

On Wednesday, officials posted notices up and down the riverbed advising people living there they had until next Tuesday to clear out under the judge’s order. At the same time, county officials must provide month-long motel vouchers for the evictees while case managers work to find them permanent housing or other shelter arrangements. 
At one of the encampments, Lisa Weber was frying up heart-shaped potato slices Wednesday morning in her tidy camp just off the Santa Ana River bike trail. 

“They’re not looking very good, but it’s cool,” she said cheerfully.

Weber said she’s missed having a kitchen in the four years she’s been homeless, living in tents in various Orange County cities. 

She and the estimated 400 other homeless people living along the Santa Ana River awoke to the news that county officials would be clearing the area on Feb. 20. Notices posted up and down the encampment advised people that a motel room would be offered to anyone who wants it for a minimum of 30 days. 

During that time, social workers will help individuals apply for subsidized housing and officials will work to open additional shelter space. 

The plan is the outcome of a deal struck Tuesday between the county and lawyers for the homeless. The latter filed a lawsuit in January alleging officials planned to evict homeless people from the riverbed without viable alternatives for where they would sleep.  

Weber, 57, said she was grateful for the offer of a motel stay. 

“I think it’s very generous,” she said. "I mean, of course, we’d like to stay here. We’re not paying rent. We don’t have to pay for utilities.”

But Weber said she's used to being told to pack up her tent: Next week’s move will be the third since she was kicked out of another section of the riverbed in November.   

Weber said she hoped a month of stability would help her get back on her feet in part because she won’t have to worry about her belongings being stolen or confiscated.

"I won’t be scared to go look for a job,” she said. 

During the month's reprieve from the streets, she also plans to renew her MediCal benefits, get a new pair of glasses, take care of some needed dental work and make a court date to ask a judge to relieve her of long-delinquent child support payments. 

Other homeless people at the riverbed said they were also grateful for the court deal. But one, a 53-year-old man named Steve, said he doubted it would mean long-term change for him or many others. "This is the only thing that works for a lot of these people," he said. Living outside, without rules.

“I don’t like being told what to do,” he said. Still, he said he figured the riverbed camp wouldn’t last forever.