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Judge halts clearing of OC homeless encampments

An Orange County Sheriff's deputy patrols the homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River near Angel Stadium on Jan. 22, 2018. A federal judge ordered the county on Feb. 7 not to enforce anti-trespassing laws in the area until the court holds a hearing on the issue scheduled for Feb. 13. Jill Replogle

A federal judge has ordered Orange County officials to halt their efforts to clear homeless encampments from the Santa Ana riverbed. The decision came late Tuesday night after lawyers for homeless people camped along the river requested an emergency stop to the sheriff’s department’s plans to begin enforcing trespassing laws in the area.

“The Court ENJOINS Defendants from enforcement of any infraction or misdemeanor anti-loitering, trespassing, or camping ordinances or statutes at the Riverbed, in light of these laws not having been enforced for the last year,” Judge David O. Carter wrote in his ruling. He wrote further that he "will not allow haphazard, hurried enforcement action in an effort to clear the population.”   

The number of homeless people camped along the Santa Ana River bike trail behind Angel Stadium has exploded in recent years, reaching an estimated 500 to 1,000 people. The county has sought to clear the encampments on several occasions, most recently in January, citing public health and safety concerns. 

But advocates claim there aren’t enough housing and emergency shelter options for the people living there, and that surrounding cities unfairly criminalize sleeping in public places. 

Earlier this week, Judge Carter set a Feb. 13 hearing on advocates’ recent request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the county from evicting people from the riverbed. But lawyers for the homeless sought an emergency stay Tuesday after the county informed them that sheriff’s deputies planned to start citing people today for trespassing.

"We were stunned that the county would decide to do this with the judge having set a hearing for (next) Tuesday morning,” said Carol Sobel, one of the lawyers representing the homeless.

Undersheriff Don Barnes wrote in a statement that his department "will continue to address criminal activity” in the area of the encampments. "Our inability to cite individuals encamped along the Flood Control Channel for trespassing due to a temporary restraining order issued by the federal court will not inhibit the Sheriff’s Department’s dedication to maintaining public safety."

Another lawsuit was filed Wednesday alleging that the county has failed to offer appropriate shelter for disabled people camped along the river. The complaint, filed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, was also assigned to Judge Carter.