(AP) — A federal judge hearing arguments over whether a California county should be able to clear out a huge homeless encampment said Tuesday he plans to take a field trip to the site alongside a riverbed.
U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter also demanded that Orange County officials provide answers about what federal funding is available to feed and temporarily house people if they are moved.
“It is time for action now. We’re done with the paperwork,” he told a county official while grilling her about funding.
The lawsuit is being watched by homeless advocates in West Coast cities and elsewhere amid a rise in homelessness and growth of encampments.
Tens of thousands of people are sleeping on streets from Seattle to San Diego, a problem caused in part by soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy.
“These are issues that are being litigated around the country,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “What the court decides may be used by these litigants and may be looked to by other courts, even if it is not binding.”
In Orange County, Carter asked for volunteers from the courtroom to be ready to walk the site and identify veterans and abused women who need assistance.
The judge also has questioned whether an adversarial setting like a courtroom is the best place to find solutions to a problem that has overwhelmed some cities.
“Where is the leadership to get this done in this county potentially? Where is the long-term solution here?” he asked.
The hearing was expected to continue through the day or longer.
County officials and homeless advocates have sparred for months over the fate of hundreds of people living in tents on a bike trail that winds along the Santa Ana River to the Pacific Ocean.
A lawsuit was filed to prevent the move when the county began to shut down the 2-mile-long (3-kilometer-long) encampment.
Orange County, home to 3.2 million people between Los Angeles and San Diego, told homeless campers in late January that they must start moving. Deputies patrolled the area near the Los Angeles Angels’ stadium to tell people about the move and offer help storing belongings and finding other shelter.
Homeless advocates sought protection from the courts when they heard the county was going to step up efforts to relocate tent-dwellers. Carter temporarily blocked officials from arresting those who refused to move.
Deputies still patrol the trail for criminal activity but are no longer encouraging people to leave, said Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Since relocation efforts began, about 30 percent of tents have been moved, she said.
Workers collected more than 400 pounds (181 kilograms) of human waste and more than 2,200 syringes in a two-week period, according to court filings by county attorneys.
They said a nearby shelter has never reached full capacity.
“The Constitution does not recognize, nor have plaintiffs provided any authority for, the right of a person to adversely possess public property merely by setting down their belongings,” Marianne Van Riper, senior assistant county counsel, wrote in court documents.
The county faced another lawsuit filed last week alleging that closing the encampment violates the rights of disabled people living there.