A federal judge Tuesday signed off on a settlement of two federal lawsuits stemming from attempts to clear the Santa Ana riverbed of a homeless encampment.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter called the resolution an "absolute game changer" for the county and noted the settlement could provide a model for the state and even the country.
"Now the governor has a working role model," Carter said. "Now he's got his first county settlement."
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Orange County Board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett told the judge, "This is really a momentous day."
Bartlett noted the legal negotiations have at times been "arduous," but, "We expect a good result."
The agreement will allow the county to enforce nuisance laws on county property by creating two zones -- one in which transients can be arrested immediately and another that requires that law enforcement first do outreach and try to move the transients into shelters, Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do said.
The restricted areas allowing for immediate arrest include John Wayne Airport, flood control channels, libraries and high-risk wilderness areas. In other areas, officials will send social workers to engage with transients, but if they refuse services, they could be taken to jail, he said. Transients with an obvious medical condition would be taken to a health clinic first for assessment before placement in an appropriate shelter, Do said. A procedure built into the agreement will allow Carter to resolve grievances, Do said.
The settlement also prevents the Orange County Sheriff's Department from enforcing anti-camping laws in its contract cities unless those cities have shown they have provided adequate shelter for their homeless population, Do said. Last month, a dozen northern Orange County cities approved a settlement in the federal litigation, agreeing to build two shelters in Buena Park and Placentia.
Those two "navigation centers" will provide a variety of services to the homeless aimed at getting them into permanent housing. The settlement applies to the north and central parts of the county.
Cities in south Orange County, however, are still embroiled in federal litigation. U.S. District Judge James Selna recently ruled that Carter had made some comments during the case that could be viewed as prejudicial, so the case was sent to a federal judge in Los Angeles County.
"The county stands ready to work with the" cities in the southern part of the county, Bartlett told Carter.
The Santa Ana-based homeless activist organization Orange County Catholic Worker sued in January of last year to stop a move to clear out hundreds of transients camped out on the riverbed near Angel Stadium. Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who represents some of the plaintiffs in the federal suit, said the settlement resolution will remain before Carter for three years, giving both sides time to iron out bugs in the process. Orange County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura praised Carter for his hands-on approach to the litigation that forced county and Santa Ana officials to clear out an encampment next to the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana.
He said the county was having trouble getting jurors to hear cases because they feared the sprawling homeless population outside the courthouse, but things have gone back to normal, he said. Do, who was chairman of the Board of Supervisors last year and led the efforts to clear out the encampment, told Carter the settlement agreement represented a "watershed" moment for the county and will provide a "blueprint" for other municipalities.
Do told reporters after the hearing that during a recent gathering of county government officials from across the country, Orange County's staffers were "mobbed" by others seeking information about how the county has handled its homeless problem.
Do told Carter his "unorthodox" approach of personally visiting the encampments and shelters led to the settlement and quicker legal process. "You forced all of us to be more pragmatic," Do said. Plaintiffs' attorney Carol Sobel agreed that Carter "brought something unique to this" as he showed "humanity" for the transients. Carter joked that, "I've only taken a few walks around the county."
Do told reporters county officials had been talking about tackling the homeless problem, but the lawsuits helped pushed that progress forward. "We kind of needed a push to go faster," Do said. "But we started this four years ago." Sobel said the settlement "is not perfect. Nothing is, but it's a really good start."