Advocate for homeless sues to stop Orange County from clearing riverbed encampment

Attorney Brooke Weitzman announces a federal lawsuit against Orange County and the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange for allegedly violating homeless people’s rights. Jill Replogle

A nonprofit that advocates for the homeless sued Orange County on Monday, hoping to stop officials from clearing an encampment with more than 500 people along the Santa Ana River.

The lawsuit filed by the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center also names the cities of Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Orange. The plaintiffs include seven homeless individuals from the riverbed along with the Orange County Catholic Worker, a group helping the poor get access to housing and social services.

Advocates say they are seeking a temporary restraining order that would halt the removal of the homeless, a process that started Jan. 22 in the shadows of Angel Stadium.

“We’ve talked to the county to share our concerns, and we’ve asked them to delay this removal until there’s enough housing available for people to move to,” said Brooke Weitzman, co-founder of Elder Law and Disability Rights Center.

“The reality is that folks out there have nowhere to go because if they settle in one area, they’re cited or harassed and told to get out. Our government keeps choosing to invest in criminalization of the homeless,” she said.

 

A homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim sits near Angel Stadium in Anaheim, in the background. An advocacy group has filed a lawsuit to stop the county from clearing the encampment. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Weitzman said her conversations with the county counsel’s office began in early January, before officials posted notices along the river trail — which spans the 5 Freeway in Orange to Ball Avenue in Anaheim — warning people about the action. The goal was to close the area to the public for about three months while public works crews clean up waste and debris along the flood control channel.

 

Catherine Sweetser, attorney at Schonbrun Seplow Harris and Hoffman LLP, who is working with the center, said “the county has demonstrated a pattern of using alleged maintenance projects to make public space less hospitable for homeless individuals without providing housing alternatives. It violates the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to punish someone for sleeping in public when they have nowhere else to sleep.”

Leon Page, county counsel, issued a statement in response to the lawsuit.

“We have no comment on the merits of the litigation,” he said, “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.”

By Monday morning, more sheriff’s deputies could be seen at the encampment, where few tents had come down and where anger and bewilderment greeted the beefed-up law enforcement presence.

Tonya Tee, who was raised in Santa Ana and calls the riverbed home, said she and her friends have desperately brainstormed for an alternate location. “We don’t have a solution,” she said.

Weitzman described the riverbed population as among the “most vulnerable in this area. All the reports, all the research, tell us that we come to this point because the county lacks affordable housing.”

“If you asked most homeless people, they would rather be outside,” said Tee, who bikes from tent to tent with her Australian cattle dog mix. “In a shelter, it’s so cramped. Here, you can breathe, you can exercise and you can watch out for each other and for all our pets.”

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