Federal judge warns O.C. cities to find shelter for homeless or risk a ban on enforcing anti-camping laws

U.S. District Judge David Carter visits an Orange County Social Services command post outside the Plaza of the Flags homeless encampment at the Santa Ana Civic Center on Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge David Carter visits an Orange County Social Services command post outside the Plaza of the Flags homeless encampment at the Santa Ana Civic Center on Tuesday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge Tuesday pushed officials from Orange County cities to collaborate to find locations for temporary housing for the county’s homeless population or risk an order from him barring them from enforcing anti-camping ordinances.

A hearing before U.S. District Judge David Carter came as pressure mounts for local governments to find ways to house hundreds of homeless people moved from encampments along the Santa Ana River trail and, most recently, the Santa Ana Civic Center.

“This doesn’t have to be a nice thing,” Carter said of temporary shelters. “It just has to be humane and dignified. That will probably get us through this crisis.”


The county’s two armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana, which provide temporary shelter for up to 400 homeless people during the winter, are scheduled to close this month, adding a new layer of urgency as space is limited in other shelters around the county. Fullerton officials asked that the armory in their city be kept open, but it wasn’t clear whether that will happen.

Under pressure from Carter, county officials in February gave temporary motel vouchers to more than 700 homeless people removed from the Santa Ana River camps. But a longer-term answer has proved elusive.

Proposals for shelters in some Orange County communities have come under heavy fire recently.

The county Board of Supervisors last week moved away from a plan to have county staff study moving hundreds of homeless people to temporary shelters in Huntington Beach, Laguna Niguel and Irvine after receiving threats of lawsuits from those communities.

Board Vice Chairman Shawn Nelson has suggested that the 114-acre, state-owned Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa be used as an emergency homeless shelter. But the Costa Mesa City Council last week voiced unanimous disapproval of the idea, supporting residents who said they were concerned that developing a shelter there would jeopardize public safety, reduce property values and unduly burden the city.

Board Chairman Andrew Do said Tuesday that he expects the problem to be punted back and forth among cities and the county unless Carter steps in with a ruling.

“At this point, I see us … being at a standstill,” Do said. “With each passing day we betray our responsibility to care for all of our residents as required by law.”

Do said the county would pledge $90 million toward permanent supportive housing.

Carter said he doesn’t have jurisdiction to tell cities or the county where they should place shelters. Instead, he proposed a regional approach in which the county would be broken into three zones — north, central and south — each with an equal distribution of shelters and homeless services.

The idea is that each zone would be able to care for its homeless population, lessening the burden on other regions. He pressed officials from cities in the southern and western parts of the county to work with neighboring cities to come up with suitable locations for temporary shelters.

Without adequate shelter, Carter said, he could prohibit the county and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange from enforcing their anti-camping laws. The county and the three cities are defendants in a civil-rights lawsuit filed by seven homeless people and their advocates over the clearing of encampments along the Santa Ana River.

“We can’t criminalize homeless by citing them in one location and citing them in another location simply for being homeless,” Carter said.

Social workers from the Orange County Social Services Agency visit homeless people living in tents Tuesday at the Plaza of the Flags in Santa Ana to try to connect them with services.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times )

Carter emphasized that the time has ended for cities like Santa Ana — which he said has the county’s only major emergency shelter — to bear the burden of sheltering and providing resources for the county’s homeless.

“Santa Ana is being forced to absorb all of the homeless because they’re brought to this area for assessments and services,” Carter said. “It’s disproportionate.”

According to data the city presented during the hearing, Santa Ana’s unsheltered homeless population has more than doubled in the past year — from 466 in 2017 to 1,030 as of Saturday.

More than half that population arrived in Santa Ana from other cities, according to city staff.

Anaheim, Irvine, Garden Grove, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Orange and Costa Mesa are next behind Santa Ana in numbers of homeless people, Carter said at the hearing.

Santa Ana Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez said it’s time for every city to do its fair share to get people off the streets.

“The nation is watching,” she said. “We need fairness for all.”

Mayors from cities in the southern part of the county, including Irvine and Laguna Niguel, said they plan to discuss possible sites for a temporary shelter at a meeting April 19. Some, including Irvine Mayor Donald Wagner, said they have locations in mind but didn’t provide specifics.

“We have stepped up and we remain committed to stepping up,” Wagner said.

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN