For months Orange County officials and homeless advocates have been locked in a dispute over what to do about the estimated 500 to 1,000 people living in encampments along the Santa Ana River.
Citing concerns about flooding and squalid conditions in the camps, authorities began an effort last month to evict people from the riverfront and start dismantling the camp sites. But the evictions were stopped last week after U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter issued a temporary halt to the evictions, citing the haphazard and hurried nature of the process. That decision occurred after a Catholic group filed a lawsuit, arguing the evictions amount to a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
On Tuesday, a hearing will begin in Judge Carter’s Santa Ana courtroom to determine what should happen next. Homeless advocates would like the judge to issue an injunction halting any further efforts to remove people from the riverfront. Ultimately, they’d also like a ruling that ends anti-camping and loitering ordinances passed by the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange.
Many of the homeless individuals KCRW talked to along the Santa Ana River say enforcement of those ordinances is what forced them to move to the riverfront in the first place. They said police officers and Orange County sheriff’s deputies told them they wouldn’t be bothered there.
There’s also the question of where people can go if they do get evicted. Although Orange County has opened up more temporary homeless shelters, like a new 200-bed facility in an Anaheim industrial park, homeless advocates say there are few options available for long-term housing in the county. Many of those camped out said they prefer the relative freedom of living along the Santa Ana River compared to the rules and regulations of homeless shelters.
At the heart of the Santa Ana River conflict is where the line should be drawn between the civil rights of those living on the streets and the authority of cities and counties to control their public spaces. Municipalities across California that are grappling with growing homeless populations will be closely watching what happens in Judge Carter’s courtroom.
Meanwhile the homeless fighting to remain at the Santa Ana River have launched their own outreach efforts to sway public opinion, including opening a media affairs tent at one of their encampments.