Lawsuit Filed in Federal Court Seeks to Halt Evictions of Homeless in Santa Ana Riverbed

As Orange County sheriff's deputies intensify their efforts to evict homeless people residing along the Santa Ana River, a federal lawsuit has been filed seeking a temporary restraining order to halt the evictions.

While the evictions are ongoing, as deputies walk around the tents and sleeping bags of the encampment to ask people to leave, authorities are now stepping up their efforts as they check for those with outstanding warrants, The Voice of OC reported.

Seventeen people were arrested on Thursday alone, a notable increase considering it's the same number of arrests made over a 10-day span just prior, the Orange County Register reported.

Arthur Johnson looks out toward his belongings on the ground that will need to be cleaned up and stored as Orange County officials started clearing homeless camps in that area of the Santa Ana riverbed on Jan. 22, 2018. (Credit: Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

Arthur Johnson looks out toward his belongings on the ground that will need to be cleaned up and stored as Orange County officials started clearing homeless camps in that area of the Santa Ana riverbed on Jan. 22, 2018. (Credit: Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

"I think we’ll see an increased enforcement of criminal activity within the encampment … not including trespassing," Orange County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun told The Voice. 

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in federal court this week requests a temporary restraining order on the evictions, arguing they are a form of cruel and unusual punishment that violates the constitutional rights of the people living in the encampments.

The lawsuit seeks to delay a closure of the camp and stop the enforcement of various "anti-camping" laws such as citations for trespassing and loitering, according to court filings. Brooke Weitzman, an attorney with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center who filed the suit, told The Voice that the ramped-up enforcement of evictions happened once she informed the county of the suit.

"Unfortunately, as soon as they were informed we were going to request this order, it seems the county’s response was to escalate the enforcement on the riverbed — stopping people without probable cause, detaining them," she said.

The county has long grappled with a growing homeless population along the riverbed in Camp Hope, located between East Katella Avenue and East Ball Road. Officials started attempts to close the encampment back in November, and by Jan. 22, it was expected to be cleared as evictions continued.

The lawsuit argues the evictions are a violation of the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment. It states those living in the encampments are being punished "for unavoidable behaviors such as using sleeping bags, tents and sleeping outside."

It also argues that homeless people have already been forced out of neighboring cities such as Anaheim, Costa Mesa, and Orange, with law enforcement officers threatening to ticket or arrest them.

Not granting the restraining order, the lawsuit argues, will leave those along the Santa Ana riverbed without "a place to sleep where they will not be disturbed by the police" and violates their constitutional rights.

But county and law enforcement officials have said they tried a gradual approach to clearing the camps, asking people to leave voluntarily until those efforts did not seem to be working.

"We were first looking for voluntary compliance from the individuals who were encamped there, but we came to a point that we were not seeing the progress we were hoping for," Braun told the Register.

The homeless crisis along the Santa Ana River became more pronounced in 2016 as people were displaced from under a freeway overpass to the river banks, according to the Register.

As the population there grew, nearby residents voiced their concerns about the noise and other problems until county officials started asking people to clear their tents and property as they worked to close the camp by January. Late that month, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer told KTLA the county had surveyed the homeless population and found that most did not want to move to a shelter.

The county performed the survey in anticipation of potential legal challenges that may call for having shelter beds available for each person being evicted. Still, advocates of the homeless have said shelters can lack privacy and safety for the people living there.

"I don't like being told I have to be home by 10 o'clock at night. I'm 64 years old. I don't need someone telling me what time to go to bed," one man living in the encampment, Raymond Lee Redmond, told KTLA in late January.

KTLA's Marissa Wenzke and Chip Yost contributed to this article.