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Judge to hear arguments in clearing of OC homeless encampments

The fate of homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River in Orange County may come down to whether a federal judge decides there are alternative places in the county for homeless people to sleep. Jill Replogle/KPCC

The fate of Orange County’s largest homeless encampment is still murky two weeks into the county’s effort to clear it out. A federal judge over the weekend declined to immediately grant a temporary restraining order that sought to delay the eviction but called for a hearing to discuss the matter next week. 

Lawyers representing homeless individuals argue that their clients would have nowhere to go if removed from the riverbed. They contend residents of the encampment would be subject to violating surrounding cities’ anti-camping and anti-loitering laws if they move elsewhere. They say the county’s emergency shelter options are inadequate and inappropriate for many of the homeless people camped out by the river. 

Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers representing homeless people, said, for example, that one of the plaintiffs has a night job and doesn’t return to central OC until around 2 a.m. Most shelters don’t allow people to check in so late.  

Orange County officials began last month to clear the estimated 500 to 1,000 people camped along the Santa Ana River bike trail in the central part of the county. The county argues that it can no longer delay maintenance in the area, which is a flood control channel, and says the encampments are a health hazard for the homeless and all Orange County residents. 

It hasn’t yet forced anyone to leave, though sheriff’s deputies have arrested more than 40 people for crimes including outstanding warrants. 

In the county’s rebuttal to the request for a temporary restraining order, it noted that workers had collected more than 2,200 hypodermic needles and about 400 pounds of human waste from the riverbed since January 22, when the clearing work began.

The county’s lawyers also argued that there are shelter options for anyone in the riverbed who wants them, but most people have refused services. The county’s homeless czar, Susan Price, wrote a declaration supporting the county’s position. 

“My experience in working with homeless people leads me to believe the the individuals residing in the riverbed are seeking to live ‘off the grid’ and are seeking to avert the perceived structure and rules that are common in accessing the resources available,” Price wrote. 

She said letting the encampments remain could “foster long term homelessness, while providing alternatives and promoting accountability in public spaces may encourage encampment dwellers to exercise options to engage for assistance.”

Whether the judge halts the clearing of homeless encampments may come down to whether he agrees that there are, indeed, alternatives. A hearing in the case is set for Feb. 13.