Bellflower joins Orange County homeless settlements; more cities may follow suit

A federal judge in Santa Ana signed off Monday on settlement agreements for Laguna Beach, Santa Ana and Bellflower that limits when the cities can enforce rules about homeless encampments and loitering.

The agreement with Bellflower was a first in the homeless litigation before U.S. District Judge David O. Carter because it involved a city in Los Angeles County. Carter said his phone “is ringing off the hook” with officials from other cities inquiring about the agreement. He predicted more municipalities will likely join the settlements stemming from litigation that originated in Orange County, when county officials moved to clear out homeless encampments in January 2018 along the Santa Ana riverbed.

As part of the agreement, Bellflower committed to creating more shelter beds— about 40 or 50—according to Carol Sobel, one of the attorneys who initiated the litigation before Carter.

“I have confidence this will spread to other areas of Southern California,” Bellflower Mayor Pro Tem Juan Garza said.

He said Bellflower residents have demanded action on the homeless crisis, and city officials signed on to the settlement agreement because it is the one approach that has “gotten results.” The agreement represents a “healthcare first approach,” said attorney Brooke Weitzman, one of the lawyers who filed lawsuits against Orange County.

As part of the deal, city officials agree to have social workers evaluate a homeless person first before enforcing any anti-camping or loitering laws. The goal is to place a homeless person into some sort of emergency shelter as a first step toward more long-term housing. Also, homeless individuals will be able to utilize a “dispute resolution” process if they are denied shelter or evicted from one.

People who refuse services can be subjected to jailing as long as the participating city has demonstrated it has provided enough shelter beds for its homeless population.

“This is a momentous occasion,” Carter said.

Sobel agreed.

“This is really unprecedented,” she said after the hearing. “Nothing like this has happened in Los Angeles.”

The judge predicted that other cities may see an “unintended migration” of homeless people from the cities that have entered into settlement agreements.

Recently, Long Beach has not experienced the same spike in homelessness as other nearby areas. In the most recent count of people living on the streets, Long Beach saw a 2% increase compared to a 40% bump in Orange County and 12% increase in other parts of Los Angeles County. The city is also in the process of building a shelter with beds for 125 people.

On Monday, Carter pushed the attorneys and Orange County officials to spread the word to other Los Angeles County cities “to knock down some of these old artificial barriers” and get more of them on board with the settlements.

“The benefit is you never got sued,” Carter said. “And you’re not waiting two or three years (on litigation).”

Carter praised Laguna Beach officials, whose efforts to address homeless issues date back a decade. The judge accused neighboring cities of “dumping” their homeless populations at Laguna Beach’s shelter.

Carter said Aliso Viejo in 2017 counted 28 homeless individuals in the city, but only one last year.

“What happened to the other 27 people?” Carter said, adding they all ended up in the Laguna Beach shelter.

Carter said Laguna Beach officials, “starting tomorrow,” can begin efforts to place people into shelters, and, if they refuse, they’ll face jail.

“We’re going to clean up your libraries, your beaches,” Carter said. “Those who decide they don’t want the shelter will go to jail.”

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