(AP) — Southern California authorities took steps Tuesday toward shutting down a large homeless encampment and relocating hundreds of tent-dwellers to motel rooms under a court-supervised deal with lawyers who sued to protect their rights.
Scores of people hauling suitcases and pet dogs lined up in the encampment Santa Ana River to speak with county workers tasked with placing the homeless in motel rooms for up to 30 days as sheriff's deputies begin clearing the trash-strewn site.
County officials said the challenge was ensuring they were reaching some 600 homeless tent-dwellers who had been living on the two-mile long stretch of the riverbed bike trail since last summer, and not others heading to the encampment solely to seek a motel voucher.
"It makes it very difficult for us to help everybody," said Frank Kim, the county's chief executive officer, adding that he saw people arrive with sleeping bags at the encampment over the weekend. "We're going to help everybody but not everybody is going to get a motel voucher."
County workers set up the triage stations to help the homeless after U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter lifted an order blocking deputies from making arrests along the trail, saying the homeless were given ample notice it was time to move.
Carter, who is known for his unconventional approach, set up an impromptu courtroom with a table and folding chairs in a parking lot near the riverbed and said he would remain on site to address any problems. He also had a gray shed brought to the parking lot, and asked lawyers whether it might be an option to temporarily house some homeless.
The deal came after advocates sued to protect the rights of evicted tent-dwellers, who say they were driven to the trail near the baseball stadium for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by a crackdown on loitering in surrounding cities. The county must conduct clinical assessments of participants and provide food and storage for their belongings. Participants must speak with a case worker and abide by motel rules.
The case in the county of 3.2 million people between Los Angeles and San Diego is being watched by advocates elsewhere who are also grappling with a rise in homelessness amid soaring housing costs.
On the trail, tent-dwellers were packing up belongings that county workers helped load into vans. Officials were working their way down the trail, and said they didn't know if they'd have enough motel rooms immediately and might need to close the encampment in phases.
Larry Ford, one of the plaintiffs, looked at the long line of people and said he wasn't sure how long it would take for him to get indoors.
"I don't see they're going to get me a place," the 53-year-old said. "I'm just another person who needs a motel."
Carter said he was concerned that moving too slowly might draw new people into the riverbed as the county is trying to get long-time residents out.
Since the deal last week, county officials have moved than 200 people out of the encampment and believe another 140 still need help, said Susan Price, the county's director of care coordination.
Carol Sobel, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said those lined up probably lived there but may have resumed sleeping in parks or on sidewalks after the county announced plans last month to close the encampment, fearing they'd be arrested if they stayed.
"This is a zoo," she said, looking at the line. "I don't question the county's intentions. I think their intentions were good, but very ambitious."