The judge must have been a strange sight as he walked in the early morning darkness through the vast homeless camp.
People peeked out from ragged tents along the Santa Ana River trail next to Angel Stadium. U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter whipped out his cellphone Wednesday just after 6 a.m.
He snapped pictures of the trash-strewn landscape and the human beings who called it home.
"When was the last time the trash was picked up out here? How often do they come? How many needles are you finding? What kind of help are folks accepting and refusing?" the judge asked in a rapid-fire fashion.
Carter is presiding over a federal case pitting homeless advocates against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange — where officials are bent on removing the illegal tent city. The judge said he agrees that this population can create a public safety issue.
But during his miles-long walk, the 73-year-old judge — a Marine and Vietnam War veteran — warned that eviction must be handled "humanely and with dignity."
In late January, Orange County officials began the process of clearing people from the encampment. They first launched a "soft sell," seeking volunteers before arrests had to be made. Then last week, Carter granted a temporary restraining order barring county sheriff's deputies from arresting people who refuse to leave the encampment.
The judge's order was related to a lawsuit filed Jan. 29 trying to halt the effort to remove the homeless. Brooke Weitzman, co-founder of the Elder Law & Disability Rights Center in Santa Ana, initiated it, hoping to prevent Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange from enforcing anti-camping ordinances and trespassing laws to deal with the encampment.
Carter is pushing the different sides to meet with their clients and staff to fine-tune an agreement to finally start clearing the camp Feb. 20.
In the meantime, the judge wanted to tour the trail himself as an alternative to "listening to hours and hours of testimony" inside a courtroom, he said.
It was Carter's fifth visit. During more than four hours, some of the homeless people who were awake in the cold air rushed up to him, shaking his hand and expressing gratitude.
"Instead of a he said/she said situation, he actually came out to judge, so to speak, with his own eyes. Looks like he's holding people accountable. He gets things done," said Kathy Schuler, one of seven homeless plaintiffs suing the county and cities for violation of their civil rights.
On Tuesday, before Carter's tour, all of the parties reached an oral agreement allowing the county to start clearing the encampment next Tuesday. County officials will offer motel vouchers, good for 30 days, to an estimated 400 people still at the riverbed. They also have ordered pop-up tents and are working to retrofit two county-owned properties in Orange and Santa Ana to provide temporary housing later.
As Carter walked and took pictures of eviction announcements taped to chain-link fences, a group of about 30 people followed him.
"Your honor, that's a needle up there. Don't touch it!" shouted Laura Knapp, an attorney representing Orange County.
"Can't believe I'm telling a federal judge what to do," she added.
The entourage included managers from the county's public works department, county CEO Frank Kim, county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, city council members, social workers and a pastor. Carter embraced homeless men and women who shared their struggles with him. The judge vowed to help a Marine veteran, Shane Allen, who was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. He told him he would get him a motel voucher.
Carter exclaimed, "Semper fi," before pulling county officials up to Allen, who sat in a wheelchair.
"Here's who you need to talk to for services," he reassured Allen. "We're going to get you and your wife a suitable place to live and food. Don't you worry."
Spitzer leaned over to ask Allen more questions, before pointing to the judge.
"Obviously, this is a very unorthodox approach coming out here to meet with the homeless, but then Dave Carter is an unorthodox guy who understands what's needed," he said. "He's pulling everyone from every agency and pushing them to work together."
Susan Price, the county's homeless czar who shadowed Carter, said: "Cooperation — that's his message. This place used to be absolutely full, but people have moved out on their own, and I appreciate him coming to see the progress we've made."
Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray, who last September persuaded her fellow leaders to declare a state of emergency over homelessness in her city, drew Carter's attention to an especially large dumping ground for furniture, dirty syringes and debris.
"When you see lots of strollers and bikes, you must figure they're taken from residential areas. We get calls from families who live in some of the nearby apartments and they can't leave anything on their front porch," she said. "Ultimately, we have to move the homeless to a higher quality of life to help everyone be safer."
Murray, Carter and two law clerks continued huddling with more residents who emerged from their tents, some cuddling pets, to meet the judge.
M.J. Diehl, who found refuge in the camp with his English mastiff three years ago, was grateful to hear he could be transferred to a motel soon.
"I'm overwhelmed — relieved," he said, touching his sticky hair. "The stress is gonna roll right off, at last, when I can take a shower."
6:25 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about the tour.
1:10 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the verbal agreement between homeless advocates, Orange County and the cities of Santa Ana, Costa Mesa and Orange.