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Judge Demands Solutions In Hearing On Santa Ana River Homeless

SANTA ANA (CBSLA) – An unusual hearing took place Tuesday in federal court over a preliminary injunction that would block Orange County officials from enforcing anti-camping and trespass laws against the homeless in the Santa Ana riverbed.

On Feb. 7, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter granted a temporary restraining order against evicting the homeless from the riverbed in response to a lawsuit filed last month by the Orange County Catholic Worker group and seven homeless people.

The lawsuit claims a broad range of violations of constitutional protections by the governments of O.C. and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange for the two-mile camp, which lies along a bike trail paralleling the Santa Ana River. Orange County Catholic Worker argues that evicting the transients will disperse them to the surrounding cities, where they will be cited for trespassing, loitering and anti-camping laws.

The suit came a week after O.C. Sheriff's deputies went tent to tent telling people the encampment was being closed down.

However, on Tuesday, Carter made it clear to the plaintiffs and defendants in the litigation that he was impatient for a solution to the homeless problem along the riverbed, which has presented a variety of problems ranging from environmental hazards to rising crime in the area and an inability of bikers and hikers to use the public trails.

Carter repeatedly interjected and stopped various speakers when they sounded like they would launch into a planned speech and peppered them with questions. He praised county officials for taking steps to address the homeless problem along the riverbed, but he also admonished them for "chipmunking" $700 million in federal funding for affordable housing and homeless services over the years.

Carter said he wanted to avoid just handing down a court order that would "stick" and could present problems down the road if circumstances along the riverbed change. He said he preferred a global solution to come from the attorneys involved in the lawsuit that would be spearheaded by the county board.

Carter turned Tuesday's hearing into a workshop among attorneys and municipal leaders to work together to find solutions. He admonished both sides to be ready to work until 10 p.m. Tuesday and through the weekend. He also said he would make an unannounced return visit to the riverbed to avoid an entourage of onlookers and media that would compel officials to quickly tidy up the area.

On Monday, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed a letter with the court in support of Orange County Catholic Worker.

In granting his temporary restraining order last week, Carter said he would "allow police presence and will allow arrests for any probation or parole violations and any felonious conduct, to protect the homeless and the residents in the area."

For the past six months, Orange County Sheriff's deputies have been advising transients that they would have to eventually leave, and social workers are on site daily offering various services, Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do said.

The homeless crisis in Orange County 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.

In January, deputies started going tent to tent along the Santa Ana River telling people the area will be closed and they need to move.

Orange County Catholic Worker argued in its brief that county officials have failed for years to provide affordable housing for the area's needy and that its homeless shelters are overcrowded.

Orange County officials, however, say they have plenty of beds available. The problem, they say, is that many transients have refused outreach services, choosing to live on the streets rather than abide by the rules at shelters, such as abstaining from drugs and alcohol.

(©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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