SANTA ANA (CNS) - A federal judge in Santa Ana signed off today on settlement agreements for Laguna Beach, Santa Ana and Bellflower on how officials in those cities handle homeless encampments and loitering.
The agreement with Bellflower was a first in the homeless litigation before U.S. District Judge David O. Carter because it involved a city in Los Angeles County. Carter said his phone “is ringing off the hook” with officials from other cities inquiring about the agreement. He predicted more municipalities will likely join the settlements stemming from litigation that originated in Orange County, when county officials moved to clear out homeless encampments in January 2018 along the Santa Ana riverbed.
It's not clear how many shelter beds Bellflower has committed to creating, but it's about 40 or 50, according to Carol Sobel, one of the attorneys who initiated the litigation before Carter.
Carter and Bellflower Mayor Pro Tem Juan Garza credited former Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who is a candidate in next year's Santa Ana mayoral race, for helping to broker the deal.
“I have confidence this will spread to other areas of Southern California,” Garza said.
He said Bellflower residents have demanded action on the homeless crisis, and city officials signed on to the settlement agreement because it is the one approach that has “gotten results.”
The agreement represents a “healthcare first approach,” said attorney Brooke Weitzman, one of the lawyers who filed lawsuits against Orange County.
City officials agree to have social workers evaluate a homeless person first before enforcing any anti-camping or loitering laws. The goal is to place a transient into some sort of emergency shelter as a first step toward more long-term housing.
Also, transients will be able to utilize a “dispute resolution” process if they are denied shelter or evicted from one.
Transients who refuse services can be subjected to jailing as long as the participating city has demonstrated it has provided enough shelter beds for its homeless population.
“This is a momentous occasion,” Carter said.
“This is really unprecedented,” she said after the hearing. “Nothing like this has happened in Los Angeles.”
The judge predicted that other cities may see an “unintended migration” of transients from the cities that have entered into settlement agreements.
Carter pushed the attorneys and Orange County officials to spread the word to other Los Angeles County cities “to knock down some of these old artificial barriers” and get more of them on board with the settlements.
“The benefit is you never got sued,” Carter said. “And you're not waiting two or three years (on litigation).”
Carter praised Laguna Beach officials, whose efforts to address homeless issues date back a decade. The judge accused neighboring cities of “dumping” their homeless populations at Laguna Beach's shelter.
Carter said Aliso Viejo in 2017 counted 28 homeless individuals in the city, but only one last year.
“What happened to the other 27 people?” Carter said, adding they all ended up in the Laguna Beach shelter.
Carter said Laguna Beach officials, “starting tomorrow,” can begin efforts to place transients into shelters, and, if they refuse, they'll face jail.
“We're going to clean up your libraries, your beaches,” Carter said. “Those who decide they don't want the shelter will go to jail.”
Carter said Laguna Beach shouldn't be “punished” for its “generosity” in sheltering the area's homeless.
Fullerton Mayor Jesus Silva told Carter that his city, which previously signed on to an agreement that included about a dozen cities in the northern part of the county, is working on a project that would provide up to 150 new beds for the area's homeless.
Carter approved an agreement in June that provides for new shelters in Buena Park and Placentia that will house homeless people in the northern part of the county.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, however, said the Buena Park shelter may be in trouble as there is a $1 million shortfall in funding. She said a dispute among healthcare providers and the insurance agency for the area's needy has blocked the funding.
Carter said he recently received an “appalling letter” from the healthcare providers about the issue to provide services through the CalOptima agency, which provides healthcare for the county's poor. CalOptima officials had assured Carter in court earlier this year they would provide $100 million in funding to bring healthcare services to the homeless shelters instead of just waiting for the area's transients to request healthcare.
Some CalOptima officials, however, have sought legal advice that they claim prohibits the use of CalOptima money on homeless services in the way it was recommended.
Carter said the pledged $100 million from CalOptima is “chump change” to the agency.
“They have an $842 million surplus” and can afford to use the money to bring healthcare services to the homeless in area shelters, Carter said.
“If they can do this in Riverside County, why can't we do it here?” Quirk-Silva told reporters.
Quirk-Silva said there is funding in the state budget to convert the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa into a shelter with 200 beds for severely mentally ill transients not eligible to be placed in any other shelters. Costa Mesa officials are concerned it would become an overnight shelter, but Quirk-Silva said it would only be used for severely mentally ill transients and would offer a full array of wraparound services.
Fairview serves a population of developmentally disabled clients, but it is in the process of being shut down.
Cities in south Orange County successfully got Carter removed from hearing litigation regarding their homeless. The case was reassigned to a federal judge in Los Angeles County and is still pending.
That litigation was triggered by San Clemente's move to steer its transients away from the beach to a city yard. Attorneys for the homeless got the California Coastal Commission to confirm that the city failed to secure proper permitting for the city yard space for the homeless.
Meanwhile, the Newport Beach City Council on Tuesday will consider converting a city corporation yard at 592 Superior Ave. into a temporary emergency shelter for the homeless. The council will consider whether to authorize design work for the project, which would include about 40 beds on one acre of a lot used primarily for storage.
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