Judge brings officials, lawyers to soon-to-be-closed homeless camp

Known for an unconventional style, the Southern California judge brought lawyers and government officials to the two-mile long riverbed encampment to talk to residents about a plan he is overseeing to move them to motel rooms and other short-term housing. 

Amy Taxin/AP
Federal Judge David Carter (r.) talks with Ronald Heatley, a resident in a homeless encampment along the Santa Ana River in Anaheim, Calif., on Feb. 14. Mr. Carter has ordered officials to find temporary housing for homeless residents after they close the encampment.

Stepping over syringes and feces, federal Judge David O. Carter walked briskly Wednesday with an entourage of government officials and lawyers along a bike trail by the Santa Ana River in Southern California, passing dozens of homeless tent-dwellers who must now look for a new place to live.

Mr. Carter, who served in the Marines, stopped to snap cellphone photos of garbage heaps and a sign in the sprawling encampment reading, "you have somewhere to put the trash but nowhere to put us."

Carter spoke with people living at the encampment about a plan he is overseeing to move them Tuesday into county-provided motel rooms and other short-term housing.

"It's going to be done as humanely as possible," he told a pair of homeless women who approached him. "But you've got to be prepared to move."

The visit came a day after Carter told Orange County officials in his courtroom that they need to give the homeless a place to go before forcing them to leave the two-mile long riverbed encampment that has swelled in recent years to include hundreds of people.

Authorities announced plans to close the encampment last month and were pursuing the effort until they were sued by advocates who said the tent-dwellers had no place to go after police in nearby cities forced them from streets and sidewalks to the riverbed.

After Tuesday's court hearing, county officials agreed to provide 400 motel rooms and other short-term housing to those evicted from their trailside digs.

The case is being watched by advocates in many West Coast cities grappling with a rise in homelessness and encampments amid soaring housing costs.

It isn't the first visit that Carter has made to the county-owned trail that runs past the stadium where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim play.

He walked through the encampment during an earlier lawsuit and has told attorneys he didn't want to waste time looking at their photos when he could see the area for himself.

Known for an unconventional style that includes hauling officials into his courtroom and putting them on the spot, Carter is nudging both sides toward a resolution. He asked them to draft an agreement on Wednesday, and said he'd be available for questions until midnight.

Carter walked quickly during the four-hour tour, forcing lawyers to rush to keep pace. The judge peppered county workers with questions about bathroom access after pointing out a urine-filled water bottle, and about accommodations for disabled people after speaking with a man in a wheelchair who said he was veteran and is battling cancer.

"There's going to be people to help you," Carter told Shane Allen. Arrangement were made later in the day for Mr. Allen to be moved to a motel room.

A short time later, Carter walked into the largely dried-out riverbed, retrieved a discarded plastic water jug, and ordered county officials to clean up the area or he would call in environmental groups to do the work.

Homeless advocates and officials are still sorting out details involving longer-term housing, and other arrangements have yet to be discussed. However, people on both sides of the case said Carter had moved things along.

"It's a definite fulcrum to force all parties to compromise a little bit," said Kris Murray, a councilwoman in Anaheim, Calif., another defendant in the lawsuit.

Still, some people living along the riverbed said they don't know what the future will hold.

Lori Werner said she would gladly move to a motel room next week. But with her husband in jail and her children taken from her over drug use, she doesn't know where she would go next.

"It's good thing, but what happens when 30 days are up?" she said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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