By Shawn Raymundo
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter on Tuesday, July 23, finalized a settlement agreement the Orange County Board of Supervisors proposed earlier this month, resolving a pair of homeless-related lawsuits filed against the county last year.
“This is the most significant settlement concerning homeless issues, certainly in the county and perhaps the state,” Carter gushed at the outset of Tuesday’s courtroom hearing in Santa Ana. Carter later called the settlement a “game changer” and a “role model” for other counties in the state to follow.
Components in the agreement include requirements for the county to set up “Standards of Care,” advertise the availability of clinical assessments for treatment programs and resources, and provide Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations at county-contracted shelters in the north and central regions.
Board Supervisor and Chairperson Lisa Bartlett said the finalization of the agreement marked “a really momentous day for the county and all stakeholders involved.”
Bartlett, who represents the county’s Fifth District, which encompasses several South County cities, also stated that the county will work with the South OC cities to get shelters in that Service Planning Area (SPA).
“The county stands ready to also work with the South County SPA,” Bartlett said, adding, “We’re very amenable to stepping up, from the county perspective, with additional services, with financial resources to make sure that we get something up and running when the cities step up to the plate and create some shelter capacity or something else in South County, so we can have a complete system throughout the whole county.”
The lawsuits that the now-effective consent decree settled stem from the removal of a homeless encampment in the Santa Ana riverbed last year and do not address similar litigation several South County cities are currently facing.
This past February, the cities of Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Irvine, San Clemente, and San Juan Capistrano were named in a lawsuit filed by Orange County Catholic Worker, which alleges the county and those cities haven’t done enough to provide homeless shelters.
A federal judge recently granted a request from some of those South County cities to have Carter disqualified from the most recent suit, in part because of statements he had previously made that were perceived as biased.
According to the settlement document released Tuesday, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department must also develop policies and procedures relating to the enforcement of the anti-camping and anti-loitering ordinances that meet the requirements of Martin v. City of Boise on county-owned property.
Last year’s Boise ruling bars cities and authorities from enforcing anti-camping ordinances unless “adequate indoor shelter” for the homeless is offered.
Prior to enforcing anti-camping ordinances against a homeless individual, authorities will first need to work with System of Care personnel in order to place the person in an appropriate shelter within his or her respective SPA, the agreement stipulates.
“OCSD will not transport homeless individuals across SPAs for the purposes of shelter placement,” the agreement states. “To any individual who declines the offered placement, OCSD will, where feasible, give the person a warning and an opportunity to immediately relocate to a location where the person may lawfully be present before issuing a citation and/or effecting an arrest.”
Such policies, the agreement notes, could be used in cities OCSD contracts with, provided that the city has met the requirements under the Boise decision.
In South County, OCSD currently contracts with Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott has been critical of the settlement agreement, having previously called it “a huge mistake” and “really dumb,” while opining that the South County cities were never consulted.
In response to the finalization of the agreement, Maryott said his position hasn’t changed and that he remained “very disappointed.”
“I’m disappointed as ever; I’m frankly disgusted,” Maryott said. “I think the county leadership, which has been very open about their blasé attitude about mental health and county resources and the delay in deploying them properly, has exacerbated this problem along the way.”
Maryott said a housing-first approach isn’t effective in this state, but rather the ideal path toward stemming homelessness is by addressing drug addiction and mental health issues.
Maryott lamented that the settlement will create a situation in which homeless individuals suffering from drug addiction and who refuse treatment will migrate to South County.
Camping is “very much a preferred lifestyle for some of them,” Maryott said, before stressing that he’s “not implying they make that decision on a sound mind. . . . I’m not suggesting that they’re making a thoughtful decision about their life, but that’s what they’re compelled to do” because of their addiction.
Bartlett’s office said the county provides services including treatment for mental health and substance abuse, but she conceded that the issue of whether a homeless individual accepts such care is “a completely different issue.”
“The County has built out a system of care and continues to expand services that include shelters, recuperative care, substance abuse treatment, treatment for mental illness, and employment training. Whether a person wants to accept our care and services is a completely different issue,” Bartlett’s office said in an email. “We have these services available, and are ready to help all residents.”
The cities of San Juan, Aliso Viejo and San Clemente filed a motion earlier this month for the court to dismiss OC Catholic Worker’s suit against the South County cities. The court is expected to notify the parties in the case whether a hearing is needed to hear oral arguments on the motion after Aug. 9, a recent court filing states.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.