A lawsuit to end homelessness?
A Los Angeles judge tries to hold the city accountable, but government alone cannot solve the problem
U.S. District Judge David Carter, 76, sat at a folding table under a white tent in front of the Downtown Women’s Center on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. From there, he led the latest hearing in a lawsuit between business owners and the Los Angeles city and county governments over the homelessness crisis.
During the Feb. 4 hearing, Carter told LA officials—sitting in socially distanced black chairs—to report any progress on the issues the lawsuit highlighted. Homeless encampments surrounded the shelter, and loud music, car horns, and shouting interrupted the hearing, which was broadcast over speakers. People on the street listened outside the shelter’s gate and sometimes shouted their reactions. Carter expressed frustration with the city’s lack of progress, saying there had been “a clear and present danger to not only those on Skid Row, but to city residents.”
Carter said he called the hearing so the parties could see firsthand the urgent reality the case addressed. Los Angeles has one of the largest populations of homeless people in the United States, and three-quarters of them live outside. According to the lawsuit, the population has nearly doubled in the past three years despite millions of city dollars allotted for services. Various efforts like Proposition HHH—a $1.2 billion bond to fund more temporary shelters—and A Bridge Home—the mayor’s plan for quick, cheap shelters to transition people to housing—failed miserably to keep pace with the problem.
In March 2020, the LA Alliance for Human Rights—a coalition of Los Angeles businessmen and downtown residents—filed the lawsuit against the city and county. The complaint described how the area’s severe homelessness hurt local businesses, residents, and the homeless themselves. Businesses were losing customers who felt unsafe because of the proliferating homeless encampments. Art centers had to hire extra security to keep safe the students who visited. Crime was increasing, along with graffiti, fires, and environmental hazards like trash and human waste. The complaint alleged the city and county were wasting taxpayer money with ineffective and expensive policies.
The same month, Carter, the judge assigned to the case, questioned numerous city officials and employees in an unconventional hearing. People cycled through the courtroom as Carter wrote ideas for creating cheap housing on a dry-erase board and sent individuals to the back of the room to work out agreements.
As the months passed, the parties appeared to make progress. In October, Councilman Bob Blumenfield led several city council members to propose an ordinance to ban people from sitting or sleeping within 500 feet of certain freeway overpasses or within 10 feet of building entrances on public property. The measure would only apply if the city could offer the homeless people somewhere else to go, such as a shelter bed. Activists opposed the ordinance as restricting the homeless people’s rights and criminalizing them instead of building housing.
In June, the city agreed to provide 6,000 new beds for the homeless by spring of 2021—a compromise after Carter ordered them in May to relocate 7,000 people camping near freeway overpasses. But in a hearing for the case in October, Carter scolded officials for making little progress toward that goal, saying, “You are already so far behind it’s disgraceful.”
Earlier this year, Los Angeles discontinued its Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement (HOPE) Program, which trained a unit of police officers to engage with the homeless. Officers worked to build relationships, coordinate city services to meet unsheltered people’s needs, and support city sanitation workers as they cleaned up encampments. The program was meant to provide individual help to homeless people instead of punishing them with arrests, fines, and nights in jail. But city officials cut $150 million from the police department in response to activists’ demands last year, and that included ending the HOPE Program.
“Enforcement of homeless-related crimes has been reduced, or in some cases eliminated, in the name of compassion,” reads the lawsuit. “But allowing people to die on the streets isn’t compassionate; it’s cruel.”
At the February Skid Row hearing, Carter asked the city and county to show just cause why “the court should not begin deploying any and all remedies” to solve the crisis.
“The system is not designed to meet the level of condition we’re in,” Councilman Mike Bonin said at the hearing. “It is not designed to meet the crisis of tens of thousands of people in encampments.” He suggested a consent decree, which would settle the lawsuit and let the judge order LA to build shelters.
A consent decree would cut through the slowness of bureaucracy, but it would still be limited.
“Federal judges have a lot of power to stop things from happening. They don’t have much power to actually make things happen,” said Gary Blasi, a law professor at UCLA.
Troy Vaughn directs the Los Angeles Mission, a Christian homeless shelter on Skid Row. He said the lawsuit is well-intentioned but underestimates the complexity of the homelessness crisis.
“I think that the city and county need to understand the totality of the problem, and the capacity of the community, the nongovernmental agencies, to provide help,” he said. “I think that there is a lot of trepidation in Christian and Christian faith organizations that their right to their faith is going to be taken away from them when they get involved with government in any significant way. We must find a way to bridge that gap. I think that there are service opportunities that the Christian community can bring to the table.”
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