A lawsuit filed Monday in federal court seeks to halt the ongoing effort to clear homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River and prevent three cities, including Costa Mesa, from citing or arresting those who violate municipal rules that prohibit camping in public areas.
The U.S. District Court complaint alleges that Orange County and the cities of Costa Mesa, Anaheim and Orange have taken actions that have effectively forced homeless people to move to the riverbed.
Now, the lawsuit states, the county is moving to push that population back into surrounding cities without a plan to provide adequate shelter and housing.
"Many people in the riverbed, including our clients, came to the riverbed because they were being criminalized in these cities," Brooke Weitzman, an attorney with the Santa Ana-based Elder Law and Disability Rights Center, said during a news conference Monday at the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. "They were being stopped for no reason other than being homeless. They were receiving citations for unavoidable acts like sleeping outside or carrying luggage, and they fled to the riverbed hoping for a little bit of stability."
Flanked by people holding signs reading "Housing is a human right," "Fund housing now" and "Homes = life," Weitzman said an aim of the lawsuit is that the cities named "be enjoined from continuing to stop individuals simply for looking homeless and to cite them for unavoidable actions."
"We hope that by bringing all of these entities together, [this] case will help end the game of ping pong they're playing, where people get shuffled back and forth from cities to county, from county to cities, and [the] finger-pointing about whose problem this is and who needs to resolve it," she said.
The plaintiffs are Orange County Catholic Worker, a group that provides services to the poor, and seven homeless people who live in the riverbed.
In a statement Monday, Orange County Counsel Leon Page declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.
"We have no comment on the merits of the litigation, but we have great respect for the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center and its talented attorneys and we look forward to discussing positive solutions that will benefit all stakeholders, including the population encamped in the Santa Ana riverbed," he said.
Costa Mesa spokesman Tony Dodero said Monday that the city had yet to receive the lawsuit and that he could not comment on it.
For months, Orange County officials have steadily been removing homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River trail.
The latter efforts came amid nearby residents' complaints of crime, odors and other nuisances and officials' plans to remove waste and debris and do maintenance in the area.
Weitzman estimated that 800 to 1,000 people are currently living in the riverbed.