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Homeless advocates sue to stop Orange County from clearing riverbed homeless camps

Attorney Brooke Weitzman announces a federal lawsuit against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange for allegedly violating homeless people's rights. Jill Replogle

Advocates for the homeless filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday seeking to stop Orange County from removing the estimated 500 to 1,000 homeless people living along the Santa Ana riverbed. 

The lawsuit alleges that the county and the cities of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa have made it impossible for homeless people to be on public property without violating local laws.

Brooke Weitzman, an attorney with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center , said many of the homeless people living along the river had been pushed out of surrounding cities with anti-camping and anti-loitering laws. 

"They were being stopped for no reason other than being homeless. They were receiving citations for unavoidable acts like sleeping outside or carrying luggage,” said Weitzman, who filed the lawsuit along with two private firms. 

Some homeless people living at the river have said police in surrounding cities advised them to move there in recent years, even though the county also has a law prohibiting camping on county-owned land.

Weitzman said the county’s latest effort to clear the largest homeless encampment along the riverbed, which began earlier this month, will push many homeless people back to the same cities that forced them out previously. 

“We’ve seen that in response to the county’s action, the cities are all investing in stepping up this criminalization,” Weitzman said. “That really leaves these people with nowhere to go."

An estimated 500 to 1,000 people live in the encampment behind Angel Stadium and the Honda Center. Starting in January last year, the county has made several efforts to remove homeless people from the area, saying the encampments are a public health hazard and compromise the riverbed’s purpose as a flood control channel. 

OC residents and users of the adjacent Santa Ana River bike trail have also complained about the sprawling, trash-strewn encampment and what they say is a corresponding rise in nearby property crime.

A lawsuit filed last year by the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center resulted in an injunction that kept the county from trying to clear the largest encampments until recently. But the county says it can no longer defer maintenance in the area occupied by tents and wants to have it cleared of human habitation within a few weeks.

The county has offered homeless people rides to nearby shelters, temporary storage of their belongings and kenneling of pets.

Advocates say there aren't enough shelter beds and that they're not an appropriate option for many homeless people, including couples and individuals with mental illness.

Larry Ford is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He said he had been forced to move several times since he became homeless in Huntington Beach about four years ago. 

“I’m very respectful of law enforcement and the powers that they have and the position that they’re in,” he said. "But at the same time, I got a right to be somewhere."

The plaintiffs seek an injunction preventing the county from clearing the riverbed encampments until appropriate alternatives can be found for all the homeless people currently living there. It also seeks to prevent the county and cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange from arresting homeless individuals for violating anti-camping laws. 

In a statement, Orange County Counsel Leon Page declined to comment on the merits of the litigation, but said, "We look forward to discussing positive solutions that will benefit all stakeholders, including the population encamped in the Santa Ana Riverbed.”

Mike Lyster, spokesman for the city of Anaheim, also declined to comment directly on the lawsuit. He said the city would “continue to extend our outreach services to anyone in need while also ensuring that all feel comfortable in our parks and other public places."