An End to County Chipmunking? Dispatches from Judge Carter’s Riverbed Case.


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Judge Carter on the riverbed with activist Sheena Innocente.

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Doug Pettibone tells me that Federal Judge David O. Carter “is known as the hardest working judge on the bench. Lots of stories. He is known to hold jury trials on weekends. Attorneys can be required to stay to 11:00 pm. In the Vietnam War he was nothing short of heroic, returning under fire to pick up wounded soldiers and carry them to safety … multiple times. The list goes on. Someone should write a biography on him.”

But you’ve already read enough tales in The Register, Voice of OC, and even national news about the gruff, funny and aggressive, take-charge brook-no-bullshit judge who likes to ditch the federal marshals he’s been saddled with (since his perilous rulings against both the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican Mafia) to walk the riverbed unannounced at any hour of the day or night, “so it doesn’t look like a parade.”

So I’ll try to skip all those kindsa anecdotes, and first summarize by saying that these lawsuits, brought by liberal advocates and homeless plaintiffs, and HEARD BY THIS PARTICULAR JUDGE, is turning out to be exactly what was needed to prod a useless and callous County government into action it’s avoided for DECADES. 

What have we accomplished so far?

(Register photo.)  One of the worries Carter most frequently expressed was the prevalence of abused/endangered women on the riverbed who band together with weapons to protect each other, but mostly sleep under bridges and in tunnels.  As rain seemed likely this past week, his greatest concern was clearing out their camps before one or more of them drowns.

Briefly, in case you hadn’t heard:  The county WILL be able to make itself and its favorite voters happy by moving these people off the riverbank beginning TUESDAY FEBRUARY 20 … but NOT WITHOUT providing them places to go and services – something they had previously put nearly no effort or expense into. 

In order to pull all these county teeth, the Judge resorted to threats (“I’m this close to saying ‘Ain’t nobody moving till I see the money,'” “I won’t be ordering a forensic auditor, at this time.”) tongue-in-cheek flattery (“I just KNOW you are acting in good faith and doing your best”) and impatience (“I want this done in a matter of HOURS NOT DAYS”; “We’ll stay here till midnight if we have to!”)  Yesenia caught a bit of it from the overflow room Tuesday morning:

Posted by Yesenia Rojas on Tuesday, February 13, 2018

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One surprise weapon Carter wielded was repeated replaying of a video of the peacock-like Supervisor and DA candidate Todd Spitzer recklessly claiming at the last Anaheim Council meeting that the County has $700 million of federal money that they could and should spend on the homeless, but his four Supe colleagues just won’t let him Todd do it!  (Nobody who attends Supe meetings can remember Todd trying to make this happen, in public at least.)

Called on the carpet, Todd’s colleagues, County CEO Frank Kim, homeless “czar” Susan Price, Board Chairman Andrew Do, all attempted to explain that it wasn’t that simple, that money couldn’t just be spent willy-nilly on whatever the homeless need, but Carter was having none of it, and ground the new verb “chipmunking” into our consciousnesses:  “No more CHIPMUNKING of Federal money!  Let’s get it where it needs to go NOW!  In a matter of HOURS NOT DAYS!  You are NOT just throwing those people back out onto the city streets with nowhere to go.  You can fix this problem on your own volition, or it could be a court order if you prefer.”  “Yes, your honor.”

County CEO Kim – Deputy Treasurer Alvin – Board Chairman Do

And so, always good for some dark sardonic laughs, the Supervisors held themselves a self-congratulatory Emergency Meeting on Thursday afternoon, in which they unanimously approved the emergency measures Carter had forced them to cough up, while solemnly patting themselves on the back for their great humaneness to the least among us.   You’ve probably read about those emergency measures by now: 

  • a motel room for 30 days for those who want one, and a ride to that room with as much of their stuff as can fit in a trunk;
  • hundreds of new emergency beds at various county-owned properties;
  • $75 food voucher a week and mental health and substance abuse services as needed.

For all these politicians’ boasting, it was mere months ago Chairman Do expressed his opinion on what would happen if these homeless people were given or lent a place to stay:  “Crack houses!  Flop-houses!  That’s the reality.”  

Shocking Supervisor Andrew Do saying if we give Homeless housing, The housing will turn into crack houses or flop houses

Posted by Wesley W. Jones on Wednesday, August 23, 2017

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Progress, perhaps, but these short-term measures left us with a boatload of questions and concerns. Such as: 

  • These people are being dispersed to motels as far off as Stanton, far from the support networks they’ve developed over the years;
  • How many new caseworkers will have to be hired for all these hundreds of dispersed people? 
  • Is 75$ of fast food really enough for a week (given that you can’t cook in most motels?)
  • Most motels demand ID’s and many of these folks have lost them over the years – some to overzealous law enforcement raids;
  • What about pets, which are so important to some of them?
  • What about the folks not on the riverbed but on the streets of Anaheim, Orange and Costa Mesa, cities that are also defendants in the suit? 
  • And what about the folks who already co-operated and left the riverbed – they certainly deserve the motel room, voucher etc. at least as much as those who stayed put.
  • And the ELEPHANT QUESTION in the room – what happens after these 30 days?

Well…

Friday Morning

 Yesterday morning was when the lawsuit from our People’s Homeless Task Force, focused on the handicapped homeless, was scheduled to be combined with the Catholic Worker’s suit.  So we motley crew arrived at the courtroom an hour early, and the tireless Carter came out and chatted with us for nearly an hour.  He assured us that he was in for the long haul, implying he KNEW the County wouldn’t follow through with their commitments without constant prodding and threats.  “I’m not gonna die any time soon, this is just the VERY BEGINNING, a baby step.”

And in his tradition of impolitic talk (NOT telling people what they want to hear) he reminded us, “I am NOT going to support the homeless lifestyle.  I am going to make sure that it does NOT become an attractive option to people.”  (And he gave a huge shout-out to the Voice of OC’s Nick Gerda, saying that their coverage is invaluable in focusing public attention on the crisis.)

In contrast to three days earlier, the crowd was sparse enough to take note of those present.  Huntington Beach Councilman Billy O’Connell was there again; as the owner of Collette’s House he has an amicus brief in the suit, and I noted he was sitting with Teamsters chiefs Patrick Kelly and Norma Lopez.  I figured they were there to push for affordable housing, and to  get their feet in the door at the outset, and I was right.  Kelly rhapsodized to me about America’s post-WWII history of affordable housing, how far we’d come from it, how invaluable it was to our healthy economy of the 50’s and 60’s, how we need to get back to it.  I’ve opposed this crowd on everything from Poseidon to subsidized Anaheim hotels to 405 toll lanes, but this seems like the kind of thing that they SHOULD be getting involved in.  (Devil in the details of course.)

“8 Years Now, You Allowed Me 2 Reside Here!  ALL OF A SUDDEN?  We need/want Housing Promised!”

I finally met the county “homelessness czar” Susan Price, who I know has had a rough relationship with my colleagues, usually disappointing them.  She seemed to evince a feeling of liberation.  I figured she’d have to be careful of how she spoke of her bosses the Supervisors, but asked, “Has this been a frustrating job so far?  Have you felt like the Board hasn’t given you the support and resources you need?”  She carefully answered, “Well, if they weren’t serious about this problem, they wouldn’t have created my position, would they have?”  “I don’t know, I think they created your position so they could wash their hands and forget about the problem.”  And she grinned, “Well, it’s not that way any more!”

After a few hours of private haggling, the County representatives came out to present their plan for Tuesday.  Beginning at Ball/Taft and inching southward, each riverbed dweller will be approached – in contrast to previous custom – by a county health worker in a blue shirt.  “The blue shirts will be the tip of the spear.”  (Sigh, still a war mentality, they can’t help it.) Law enforcement will be standing off to the distance just making sure there’s no trouble.  Each person will be offered a ride to their motel room with whatever property they can get in the trunk, their food vouchers and referrals to mental health and substance abuse services.

Then they came over to where we were sitting, the county bureaucrats who used to treat us like dirty crazy hippies, handing us their cards, shaking our hands, making sure we called them if we have ANY concerns.  Judge Carter says he will be using OUR headquarters – Camp Hope, at the riverbed and Katella – as HIS headquarters on Tuesday morning.  One of Lou Noble’s activist friends marveled, “This is like the Twilight Zone.”

Yeah, we still have concerns about the folks running things, and we’d like to be in a position of oversight.  For one thing, we don’t trust their use of money.  Look at the $12 million they spent on the Rockwood Apartments, the $10 million on Bridges at Kraemer, compared to the paltry number of people those serve – where does all that money go?  At that rate this $700 million would be gone in no time with little result.  They should be looking at modular housing, at Tuff Sheds as the Judge suggested, for a quick and affordable intermediate-level fix. 

And we don’t trust their symbiotic reliance on NON-PROFITS, and we don’t trust those Non-Profits.  Nonprofits like CityNet that claim to house or shelter hundreds of homeless, but they’re counting folks who only sheltered for 21 days in night-time only places like the Armory. And we don’t trust non-profits like CityNet who lobby against Housing First and for anti-camping ordinances just to keep themselves in the game.  This shit is crying out for its own article.

But meanwhile it’s nice to hear Lou Noble finally sounding optimistic as he wraps things up today’s update.  It’s almost like the County has a new father figure that deserves better than contempt:

Posted by Lou Noble on Saturday, February 17, 2018

https://www.facebook.com/luis.nobleperez/videos/1972615929432591/


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.