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Judge Holds Rare Saturday Hearing To Work Out Housing For OC Homeless Displaced From Riverbed

SANTA ANA (CBSLA) — After a daylong hearing during a rare weekend session, a federal judge has ordered county and city leaders to work with homeless advocates to figure out how to house hundreds of transients displaced from the Anaheim Riverbed last month.

U.S. District Judge David O. Carter presided over the Saturday hearing which began at 9 a.m. and ended with Carter talking to individual homeless people well into the evening.

The hearing concluded with an agreement between Orange County, Anaheim and Santa Ana, and activists representing 700 homeless people temporarily housed in motels after sweeps at the riverbed.

The homeless persons affected were given 30-day motel and food vouchers in late February. Those are set to expire within a week.

According to the agreement reached Saturday, those with vouchers will be relocated in groups of roughly 100, City News Service reported. Those still waiting to be transferred will be allowed to remain in their motels.

"Where we have successfully relocated folks from what was an unsustainable living situation, and we continue to look for next steps for those folks," said Anaheim spokesman Mark Lyster.

The agreement also calls for the homeless living at the Santa Ana Civic Center to be relocated to shelters.

The County of Orange this week approved $2 million for additional shelter beds. The county said it had enough beds for the riverbed homeless, a claim disputed by homeless advocates.

Judge Carter wanted to make sure the county did, in fact, have a place for the displaced before they left their motel rooms.

"How do they know what we need if they don't ask us," said one homeless woman. She was displaced from the riverbed encampment and worries that, even with all the legal wrangling, there isn't enough housing.

"We need a lot of help out here — not two years from now, or three years from now. We need it now," she insisted.

Advocates will be able to challenge the new placements if they deem the locations unfit for their clients.

"The only option they were given was to go to shelters, and because of our client's mental health, they cannot go to shelters — it's not medically appropriate for them," one advocate told CBS2 News.

"The beds have to reflect the fact that not every homeless person has the same needs, and that some need emergency shelter," prominent Southland civil rights attorney Carol Sobel told CBS2. "Some need medical care. Some need transitional shelter, like victims of domestic violence, to get back on their feet, and you have to have a system that accommodates all of that," Sobel echoed.

The rare Saturday meeting came about after homeless advocates Thursday filed court papers asking for an extension of the motel vouchers. A hearing to figure out a long-term plan for the riverbed transients was originally scheduled for April 3.

Attorneys for the homeless argued in Thursday's court filing that several transients were falsely told they had been denied further services or were being sent to shelters they deemed inappropriate.

Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do disputed claims the county may not have enough shelter for transients when they segue out of the motels.

"The county has at least that many beds in order to accommodate 530 people," Do said.

In January, the Orange County Catholic Worker group and seven homeless people filed a lawsuit claiming a broad range of violations of constitutional protections by the governments of Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange regarding the removal of the homeless from the riverbed.

That lawsuit culminated in an unusual hearing on Feb. 13 in Judge Carter's courtroom. That hearing turned into an hours-long negotiation session in which advocates and local officials reached a tentative deal on finding temporary shelter for the homeless living in the riverbed.

The deal calls for, among other possible solutions, providing the homeless with month-long motel vouchers, adding beds to the homeless center in Anaheim, and erecting a tent in a fleet yard in Orange that can house up to 100 beds.

The O.C. homeless crisis came to the forefront last September, when the Anaheim City Council declared a state of emergency for the more than 400 people who have been living in a tent city in the shadow of Angel Stadium.

That same month, the Santa Ana City Council also declared the homeless issue around the Santa Ana Civic Center a public health and safety crisis, while the O.C. Board of Supervisors approved a plan to increase law enforcement along the riverbed from Santa Ana to Anaheim.

In November, Orange County permanently closed the west side of the flood control channel between Santa Ana and Fountain Valley. During the process, authorities reportedly found about 1,000 bikes hidden in a tunnel system under a concrete flood control channel. Deputies also began strictly enforcing public access hours along the Santa Ana River Trail. Access is only allowed between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Deputies have been slowly clearing the encampments since January, when they began going tent to tent along the Santa Ana River telling people the area will be closed and they need to move.

(©2018 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services contributed to this report.)

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