Orange County social services workers on Monday were scheduled to begin assessing the needs of more than 200 people living in Santa Ana's Civic Center. As soon as this week, they plan to clear out the homeless people who have made their home at the physical heart of government in the county.
Those camped out in the Plaza of the Flags aren't sure how seriously to take plans to evict them.
"You know how the rumors go. So we're not really sure what's going to be happening," said C.J. Stern, who has been living in the plaza with her wife for two years.
Stern would like to stay. Finding stable housing has been impossible, she said, between an eviction on her record and many landlords' reluctance to rent to someone currently homeless.
"I just hope to not be straight out there on the street," Stern said. "I would think they'd be happy — happier — with us here, because poor people aren't going to go away."
Confusion and unease about what the county has planned was common.
"You can't really trust anything they say," Mona Corman told KPCC on Friday. She said law enforcement had been going tent-to-tent, informing residents of the potential changes.
Corman has lived in the plaza off-and-on for five years. She's found a community here, forged by residents who often share a struggle with poverty, addiction and mental illness.
"Even with the drama and the constant chaos, I feel a sense of connection," she said.
The latest figures show 208 people living on the Santa Ana Civic Center grounds. Most have camped in the Plaza of the Flags, which is ringed by city, county, state, and federal government buildings. Their rows of tents stand below the flags of Orange County's cities.
On a sunny Friday morning, residents went about their typical days, tearing down tents for daytime, tending to dogs, fixing bicycles and chatting with neighbors.
But there were indications that change was coming. A sign at one entrance declared that overnight camping is forbidden beginning today, and that police may start enforcing the rule as soon as tomorrow.
U.S. District Judge David Carter has told Orange County it needs to proactively relocate people living in Santa Ana’s Civic Center, as it did for the hundreds of people the county evicted from the Santa Ana riverbed in February.
That relocation plan calls for county workers to place encampment residents in housing, which could include facilities that handle mental health and substance abuse issues. At the same time, the Santa Ana Police Department will provide security and ultimately begin enforcing a ban on overnight camping.
County workers discussed having the capacity for perhaps 45 assessments per day at a meeting with Judge Carter on Friday, according to staff from Supervisor Lisa Bartlett's office.
Commander Jose Gonzalez of the Santa Ana police told KPCC that enforcement will only take place after social services workers have met with each person in the encampment. But with several government agencies and the court system involved, "this is still somewhat fluid," Gonzalez said.
The City of Santa Ana has been reviewing measures to address public health and safety concerns at the encampment for months.
The actions follow a dramatic week in Orange County's homelessness crisis. On Tuesday, County Supervisors voted to overturn a decision they had made just days before paving the way for potential homeless housing in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Nigel.
The reversal followed an outcry from residents and politicians from those three cities.
In response, Santa Ana's City Council voted unanimously Friday to explore suing Orange County to force greater support in fighting homelessness.
"We can’t simply clear and forget about this population. The proverbial 'can' must not be kicked down the road any further, and our sister cities across Orange County need to step up," Santa Ana City Manager Raul Godinez II said.
City staff will report back to the council tomorrow on its legal options.
That same day, U.S. District Judge David Carter has invited officials from Orange County’s 34 cities to meet and explore long-term solutions to the homelessness crisis.