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By Shawn Raymundo and Cari Hachmann
A proposed settlement agreement over two homelessness lawsuits that the Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed to in a closed-door meeting Tuesday, July 16, has sparked concerns among South County officials who are unclear about its intent and possible impact to the region.
The potential agreement aims to settle a pair of lawsuits that stem from the removal of a homeless encampment in the Santa Ana riverbed last year by setting up standards of care at county shelters in the north and central regions and have the Orange County Sheriff’s Department establish protocols for anti-camping laws, the office of Board Supervisor and Chairperson Lisa Bartlett explained.
The agreement will also first need to be reviewed by Judge David O. Carter and agreed upon by the groups and homeless individuals that filed the lawsuits against the county last year. According to court filings on July 17, a hearing regarding the submission of the settlement is scheduled for July 23 in Carter’s Sana Ana courtroom.
The county and several South County cities, including Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, are currently facing similar litigation filed by OC Catholic Worker, along with the Emergency Shelter Coalition and Housing is a Human Right Orange County. That lawsuit, which was filed this past February and alleges the county and its cities haven’t done enough to provide homeless shelters, is not included in this proposed settlement.
Last month, a federal judge granted a group of South County cities’ request to have Carter disqualified from the most recent suit, in part, because of impartial statements he had previously made as well as comments he gave regarding some city officials who didn’t attend an April 2 hearing.
A fact sheet highlighting details of the potential agreement from the county of Orange explained that it would cover “all current and future homeless individuals” residing in the county’s North and Central Service Planning Areas.
Should the settlement become certified through a consent decree, OCSD “will 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,” the fact sheet stated.
The Boise ruling last year bars cities and authorities from enforcing anti-camping ordinances unless “adequate indoor shelter” for the homeless is offered.
Bartlett, who represents the county’s Fifth District, encompassing several South County cities, stressed that the proposed settlement doesn’t make any adjustments to the Boise ruling as it still stands as the precedent.
“There is no difference. This proposed settlement does not change the ruling in Martin v City of Boise,” Bartlett’s office said in an email. “This proposed settlement allows the County to enforce anti-camping and anti-loitering laws on all owned and leased County properties like John Wayne Airport, flood control channels, parks, etc., including those in South County.”
Under the terms of the potential agreement, OCSD also “may take more assertive action if a violation arises” on the county-owned and leased property, according to the fact sheet.
In the days following the Tuesday night meeting, San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott expressed staunch opposition to the potential agreement, opining that the South County cities weren’t consulted with.
“I’m really disappointed at the moment … I think the settlement is premature, and in particular, I think OCSD’s involvement in their agreement is also premature,” Maryott told The Capistrano Dispatch.
He also called the settlement “a huge mistake” and later “really dumb” as he lambasted the board for “running scared.”
“I believe the county leadership ran scared on this issue. And in doing so has not helped residents and has not helped the homeless, particularly in South County, but across the board,” Maryott said, believing the best way to stem homelessness is by addressing drug addiction and mental health issues in the state.
While Bartlett’s office has since provided additional information over the proposed settlement, the initial details were sparse when news of it first broke, having other South County officials scrambling to understand what the Board agreed to.
Acting San Clemente Mayor Dan Bane offered a measured response Wednesday, July 17, stating there’s much that remains to be determined until the settlement is released.
In a phone call with The Dispatch, Dana Point Mayor Joe Muller echoed Bane’s sentiments.
A section regarding the Boise ruling that’s included in the proposed agreement stoked further concerns, as comments County Supervisor Andrew Do provided to the Orange County Register indicated the proposal stipulates that OCSD wouldn’t enforce anti-camping laws in the nine South Orange County cities it contracts with unless homeless people are provided with a shelter to sleep in—a requirement already established under the Boise decision.
The nine cities OCSD contracts with are Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
In the OC Register story, Do is quoted by calling the settlement “a statement of policy to let the contract cities know this is how the sheriff’s department will conduct itself in the future.”
Because the Boise ruling already prohibits the enforcement of anti-camping ordinances unless a shelter is provided for the homeless, it was unclear how this proposed settlement agreement addressed OCSD’s enforcement as it relates to that decision.
According to Bartlett, it doesn’t.
“The proposed settlement does not change how OCSD enforces anti-camping in contract cities, but it does allow OCSD to enforce anti-camping in the unincorporated areas of the County and properties owned and leased by the County, including but not limited to libraries, parks, and flood channels,” Bartlett said in an emailed statement.
The OC Register story has since been updated to include comments from Bartlett.
Asked to clarify Do’s remarks he had made to the daily publication, the supervisor’s office referred The Dispatch to the updated Register story.
The city of San Clemente this past May established an outdoor homeless encampment on a lot off Avenida Pico that was meant to serve as an alternative for those who had set up tents in North Beach.
That encampment was later challenged by a homeless advocacy group that called on the court to shutter the Pico encampment based on unsanitary conditions and alleged violations to the Americans with Disabilities Act. A motion to temporarily close down the camp was denied by a U.S. district court earlier this month.
In response to the initial news coverage of the proposed settlement, Bane said the city doesn’t “think enforcement is going to change as it relates to San Clemente.”
“We believe what we’ve done with our encampment complies fully with Martin v. Boise,” he added.
While Bane said he didn’t think the inclusion of the Boise ruling in the agreement would impact San Clemente, he warned that the city may need “to look at other options” if OCSD doesn’t enforce its anti-camping ordinance.
“I don’t think it’s going to. But again, we’ll see,” Bane said. “For the encampment to work, it requires OCSD enforcement. If we can’t get their enforcement, we will have to look at other options.”
Maryott shared a similar sentiment.
“Now we’re being told that our police force, that our tax-paying residents support with their tax dollars, is not going to enforce our ordinances and that is going to force the South County cities to take a hard look at how much its paying for law enforcement and question its effectiveness.”
Dana Point Times City Editor Lillian Boyd contributed to this story
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.