(AP) — Led by a federal judge, an entourage of three dozen lawyers, activists, county workers and officials set out at dawn Wednesday down a California trail to assess what it would take to move hundreds of homeless people camped along a riverbed.
U.S. District Judge David O. Carter boldly ordered the outing in a case in Orange County being watched by homeless advocates along the West Coast and elsewhere grappling with a rise in homelessness caused in part by soaring housing costs, rock-bottom vacancy rates and a roaring economy.
Homeless advocates sued and sought protection from the court when they heard authorities were going to start citing or arresting people who refused to budge from the two-mile (3.2 kilometer) long encampment.
Carter’s ruling will only cover people living in the tents near the stadium where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim play, but homeless advocates elsewhere might look to the case to make similar claims, experts said.
During the more than four-hour tour, Carter spoke with officials about how to remove syringes littering the ground, the lack of access to bathrooms for tent-dwellers, and who is and isn’t willing to move to motel rooms the county will offer for 30 days when the encampment is shut down on Tuesday.
“This is going to move much more quickly than anybody suspected,” Carter told the lawyers.
The judge stopped frequently on the brisk walk to snap cellphone photos of trash and to pick up discarded water bottles.
The visit came a day after Carter told local government officials they must come up with a plan to move the homeless people from the riverbed before shutting down the encampment, which grew in recent years into a stream of tents and tarps on a bike trail along the Santa Ana River.
County officials then offered to provide up to 400 motel rooms, which homeless advocates welcomed as a way to ease the transition.
Details are still being hashed out about longer-term housing alternatives and allegations by homeless advocates that police in several Orange County cities pushed people to the riverbed by forcing them off sidewalks and streets.
Orange County, home to 3.2 million people between Los Angeles and San Diego, started telling the homeless last month that officials were closing the encampment and offering to store belongings and help find shelter.
Many people moved out, and the number of tents is much smaller than just a few weeks ago. But the process was halted after homeless advocates obtained a court order over fears tent dwellers with no other place to go would be arrested if they refused to leave.
Under the agreement being worked out in court, anyone left in the encampment will be asked to move Tuesday to temporary housing. The county says it will be able to provide 700 to 800 beds in motels and other locations for people driven from the area.